TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's "stand your ground" law works and should not be overturned, but the standards for neighborhood watch groups should be looked at by the Legislature, a state task force concluded Friday.
The 44-page report released by Republican Gov. Rick Scott's office said people have a right to feel safe and secure in Florida and have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack. Most of the recommendations had already been made public.
The report, however, recommended that legislators look at neighborhood watch groups. The parents of Trayvon Martin, a teenager killed a year ago by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, had asked the task force to change the 2005 law.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton asked the task force last June to support a "Trayvon Martin amendment" to the law, which would make it harder for someone who starts a fight to use a self-defense argument under the law.
"Just review and amend it," Fulton said then. "I had to bury my son at 17. He was committing no crime. He was doing no wrong."
Zimmerman claims self-defense. He has pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge.
The 19-member Task Force on Citizens Safety and Protection, which held meetings in seven different Florida cities, recommended to Scott and the Legislature that the role of neighborhood watch participants should be limited to observing, not pursuing, confronting or provoking potential suspects.
"It's what I expected," said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale. "When you put a task force together of people who wrote the bill and full of people who support Stand Your Ground I knew the task force wouldn't come up with anything earth-shattering in their final report."
On Feb. 26, 2012, Zimmerman spotted Martin walking through his neighborhood, a gated community, in Sanford. Martin was walking back to a house he was staying at in the community after a trip to a convenience store. Zimmerman started to follow him because he thought he looked suspicious. Despite a police dispatcher telling him "you don't have to do that," Zimmerman got out of his truck to pursue Martin.
They got into a fight and Martin was shot.
Lawyer John Phillips represents the family of Jordan Davis, who was killed by a man who is also claiming self-defense. Phillips is not impressed with the Task Force ruling.
"So, it was a fairly biased report to go with a fairly biased hearing," said Phillips. "So, it's more of the same."
As Phillips prepares a civil case, he said that he is watching closely as the man accused in the killing, Michael Dunn, may use the Stand Your Ground defense.
Phillips said the law needs serious change, even though he's not asking for it to be thrown out entirely.
"I fully expect other members of the legislature to file the appropriate documents and try to overturn SYG law," said Defense Lawyer Gene Nichols.
Nichols told Channel 4 he doesn't know if making the law more specific or throwing it out will happen.
"The folks involved who backed this bill, also on this panel, will make it difficult to overturn this law," said Nichols.
"We're going to have to collaterally attack the ambiguities," said Phillips. "But the panel has nothing to do with it. The panel is all 'hey, yay, we've got something else on our resumes."
State Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, released a statement through the House minority office Friday, disappointed with the panel's final report.
"I just hope this law doesn't cause more deaths," said Stafford, who is sponsoring a measure (HB 123) that would require an overt act for someone claiming the "stand your ground" defense.
Florida's Republican-led Legislature has stood solidly behind the law and would've likely opposed any recommendation that it should be repealed.
Task force vice chairman R.B. Holmes, pastor of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, noted in a letter to the group's chair that Florida's "stand your ground" law "is associated with an increased death toll that falls disproportionately on minority groups" and that "shooting a person in the back, as he is trying to escape, is, by definition, not self-defense."
At a September hearing in West Palm Beach, task force members acknowledged that "stand your ground" cases were not uniformly handled across the state.
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