Standing Your Ground While Black in Florida…and in 24 Other States
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 09:12
By David William Pear.
“If a white man kills a black man it is self-defense.
Florida was the first state in the country to pass a Stand Your Ground (SYG) law which gives a person the right to defend him or herself with deadly force without the traditional “duty to retreat if physically possible”. Many people interpret this as shoot first and ask questions later, legalized gun-rage, a license to kill and an easy loophole for murder.
The original SYG law was signed into law by Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2005. The law was heavily lobbied for by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The Florida SYG law became the model for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and very similar laws have now passed in 24 states and are under consideration in 5 other states. 
Now SYG is a national concern. Since Florida has had seven years of SYG cases it provided an incubator for what much of the rest of the country can expect. There have been many controversial SYG episodes in Florida and baffling court decisions. The statistics on SYG show that race does matter. 
Kareem Jordan, a criminologist at the University of Central Florida says: “Even if racism is not overt… at the end of the day, it could be something that's subconscious going on if you look at how the media depicts black life.'' Defendants regardless of race who claim SYG are much more likely to prevail if the victim is African American. 
Now there is a fresh controversy in Tampa Florida. A 71-year-old African American man named Trevor Dooley shot and killed a 41-year-old white man named David James during an altercation on a neighborhood basketball court. Mr. Dooley said he was acting in self-defense in accordance with the Florida Stand Your Ground Law.
Mr. Dooley was arrested, charged with criminal homicide and found guilty on November 19, 2012. He is scheduled for sentencing on January 10, 2013 and is facing the possibility of a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. After his conviction Mr. Dooley said to reporters: “Do you really think that if it was the other way around and the skin color would be different we would be here today…We wouldn’t”?
Neither Mr. Dooley nor his attorney raised that question during the trial. It is to be seen whether race will be discussed at sentencing. If race is raised it will be a risky move. Judges are more likely to be sympathetic to a person who shows remorse and apologizes. An embittered black man who blames racism is more likely to get the book thrown at him.
Circuit Judge Ashley Moody, who is white, has already had no sympathy for Mr. Dooley’s SYG defense when she denied his attorney’s motion for immunity from prosecution as provided by SYG. The Judge said that in Mr. Dooley’s case SYG does not apply.
Nobody is denying that the shooting back in September 2010 is a tragedy for everybody. The deceased was a retired Air Force veteran. His wife is now a widow and his ten-year-old daughter, who witnessed the shooting of her father, is traumatized for life. And a 71-year-old man with a wife, three children and grandchildren is facing the rest of his life in prison.
Mr. Dooley is said to be a good and quiet neighbor. He has been married to his wife Patricia for 42 years. Both him and his wife were part-time school bus drivers and had no prior criminal record. They live in a quiet will-groomed neighborhood. Mr. Dooley had a valid Florida license to carry a concealed weapon. Mrs. Dooley said that her husband always carried his pistol concealed in his front pocket for self-protection.
Florida, like many other states now, is a very easy state to get a license to carry a concealed gun. Over 1.3 million licenses have been issued in Florida which has a population of approximately 20 million. It is also legal to have a loaded gun in an automobile, truck, boat, RV, hotel room and at home in Florida without a license. So having a loaded guns around is not unusual. The SYG law added fuel to the fire.
Both the prosecution and the defense agreed on most of the pertinent facts. Mr. James and his eight-year-old daughter Danielle were shooting basketball hoops on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. They were only using half the court. A white teenager named Spencer Arthur asked for permission to skateboard on the other half of the court and Mr. James agreed.
Mr. Dooley who lives across the street came out of his house and complained about Spencer skateboarding on the basketball court because as he said it had just been resurfaced and it was very expensive. Spencer stopped skateboarding but Mr. James and Mr. Dooley got into a heated argument and Mr. James kept insisting that there was no sign posted saying “No Skateboarding”. Mr. Dooley testified that he realized during the argument that “no good would come of this” (the argument) and said “Screw this”. He then turned around to walk back to his home. It was then that things became physical.
Mr. Dooley, who was 69-years-old at the time, stood 5 feet, 7 inches and weighted approximately 160 pounds, says that he was grabbed from behind by Mr. James, who was 41-years-old, stood 6 feet, 1 inch and weighed 240 pounds. Mr. Dooley said that Mr. James spun him around. Mr. Dooley said that when Mr. James began choking him he pulled his gun out of his pocket. There was then a struggle for the gun and both men went to the ground with Mr. James on top. Mr. Dooley says that he was unable to breath, was frightened that Mr. James would shoot him if he were to take away his gun and that he was in great fear for his life. It was then, as Mr. Dooley said, that he “had no other choice” except to shoot Mr. James to save his own life.
Michael Witt has a slightly different story. Him and his wife Michelle were playing tennis nearby and noticed the argument. Mr. Witt testified that he saw Mr. Dooley lift his t-shirt to flash something in the waist band of his jeans. Mr. Witt said that he later realized that what he saw was the butt handle of a small pistol. In Florida it is illegal to openly carry a gun or to flash a gun even if one has a permit. To do so however is only a misdemeanor. Mr. Dooley says his t-shirt was tucked in and he did not flash his gun. He said that it was concealed in his jeans pocket as usual.
Mr. Witt said that Mr. Dooley cursed at Mr. James and then turned around and started walking towards his home. Mr. Witt agreed that Mr. James attacked Mr. Dooley. However he said he did not see Mr. James choke Mr. Dooley, but he did say he saw a struggle for the gun and both men fell to the ground with Mr. James on top of Mr. Dooley when the gun was fired.
Mr. James’ daughter Danielle testified that Mr. Dooley tried to walk away from the argument and that her father “spoke-up louder” at him and that her father “got on top of him to try to keep him down so he could actually get the answer” of where there was a sign that said no skateboarding. Danielle said she only saw the gun when her father was shot.
After the shooting Mr. Dooley got to his feet and unloaded his gun. He put the gun and bullets on the ground and waited at the scene until the police and paramedics arrived. He was arrested later by the Tampa police and charged with criminal homicide.
The prosecution’s case rests on two questions. One, did Mr. Dooley flash or pull his gun first threatening Mr. James? And two, did Mr. Dooley have sufficient reason to fear for his life at the time Mr. James was shot. None of the other circumstances seem to be disputed. Mr. Dooley tried to break off the verbal argument and go home. Mr. James physically attacked Mr. Dooley. And Mr. James was on top of him when Mr. James was shot.
A Tampa attorney by the name of John Fitzgibbons, who is not involved in this case, is quoted as saying: "Under SYG in this state, you have a right to have a firearm with you. You have a right to basically have a heated discussion with somebody. And if you are in reasonable fear of your life because of actions taken by another person, then you are allowed to use deadly force."
Even if Mr. Dooley were considered to be the aggressor, the SYG law provides that the aggressor is entitled to SYG self-defense under certain circumstances. Section 776.041(b) states that if an aggressor makes it clear that he wishes to withdraw and makes a good faith effort to do so but is forcibly prevented from doing so and fears for his life he may SYG and use deadly force. 
So, it all boils down to whether or not the police, the prosecutor, the judge and the jury believed Mr. Dooley. Mr. Dooley says that race is the reason the authorities and the jury did not believed him.
The white jury foreman Walter Joss said that race had nothing to do with it; that there was “not an ounce of prejudice in there…it never even occurred to us”. Mr. Joss said that: “it was totally senseless…it didn’t have to end that way…at the end of the day what do you have, a girl without a father over a stupid skateboard”. The all-white jury except for one Hispanic and one African American only deliberated for 90 minutes before finding Mr. Dooley guilty. 
Regardless of bad manners in bring up race; it does seem reasonable for an African American on trial for shooting a white person to ask the question if race matters. Mr. Dooley thinks that it does. A Tampa attorney Delano Stewart agrees with Mr. Dooley that race was involved in the trial, and has asked for permission to testify at Mr. Dooley’s sentencing. Mr. Stewart is a 76 year old attorney who was the first African American to serve as a public defender in Tampa in the 1960’s.
Other African American’s in Florida have suffered from the appearance of unequal justice of SYG rulings too. Such is the strange case of a Tampa African American woman named Marissa Alexander who in May 2012 got 20 years in prison. She said that she had intentionally just fired a warning shot to defend herself from her estranged husband. The shot missed and nobody else was injured. There was a restraining order against her husband for his past domestic violence. Still Ms. Alexander was denied the SYG defense and was found guilty of a felony.
Ms. Alexander had turned down a plea bargain deal by the prosecutor of 3 years in prison. Instead she pleaded innocent and incredibly got 20 years by the judge. There is something wrong here too. So if someone is guilty and takes a plea bargain they get 3 years in prison. But if someone thinks they are innocent and lose in court they get 20 years in prison. How many innocent people take the plea bargain instead of a gamble that can result in that kind of outcome?
Florida is still not over the controversy of the tragic case of Travon Martin who was the African American teenager shot to death by George Zimmerman in Sanford Florida on the night of February 26, 2012. Travon was returning to his father’s friend’s house in the neighborhood after going to a convenience store to purchase a package of Skittles and a soft drink. Unfortunately Travon was wearing a hoodie while black and looked suspicious to Zimmerman.
Zimmerman is a white-Hispanic  who was the self-appointed neighborhood watchman. He was armed with a Kel-Tec 9mm semiautomatic pistol even though it is against the rules of the National Neighborhood Watch Program for watchers to be armed. Zimmerman then chased down Travon, who was unarmed and running away, and shot him to death. Zimmerman was initially taken to the Stanford police station but then released by police. Zimmerman, who showed no signs of injury at the time , said that he acted in self-defense, feared for his life and claimed his right to SYG. The SYG law specifically prohibits shooting a fleeing person.
National civil rights leaders including the Reverend Al Sharpton charged that racism motivated the Sanford Police in releasing Zimmerman without charging him for the killing. Only after international protests and mass demonstrations in Sanford Florida was Zimmerman arrested on April 11, 2012, and charged with second degree murder. He is scheduled for trial on June 10, 2013.
The SYG law does more than just provide a legal argument for justifiable homicide based on self-defense. It provides for immunity from arrest, criminal prosecution and from a civil lawsuit for the death or injury to an alleged attacker. The National Rifle Association (NRA) now offers its members insurance to cover expenses and lost income if someone is improperly arrested, prosecuted or sued while legally SYG.
After the international fury over the Travon Martin shooting by George Zimmerman, the Governor of Florida impaneled a 19 member committee to review SYG. Governor Rick Scott’s Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force concluded its review in mid-November 2012. Their findings were mostly that the law is just fine as it is and they reaffirmed the: “…core belief that all persons have a right to… stand their ground and defend themselves from attack with proportionate force, including deadly force”. 
State representative Republican Dennis Baxley from Ocala Florida was one of the co-authors of SYG in 2005. He was also on the 2012 Citizens Safety and Protection Task Force that reviewed SYG. Representative Baxley is a member of the NRA, a devout Southern Baptist and the town’s undertaker. Representative Dennis Baxley strongly defended SYG with a highly animated fist-pounding statement that SYG is “doing exactly what it is supposed to do, it is preventing felonies, it has saved thousands of lives and it is promoting good citizenship by empowering people to prevent violence”.
Yet it seems that instead of Florida becoming less violent it is returning to the days of the Wild West. Gun play and “Stand Your Ground” self-defense killings have more than tripled in Florida since the enactment of SYG.
Another case just occurred on the night of November 27, 2012. This time a 45–year-old white man by the name of Michael Dunn fired 8 shots from his car into a SUV of African American teenagers after he complained they were playing their radio too loud. A 17-year-old African American by the name of Jordan Davis was killed.
Mr. Dunn fled the scene of the shooting without notifying the police. A witness got his license plate number and he was arrested several days later for second-degree murder. He said that one of the teens pointed a shotgun out of the window of the SUV at him and he feared for his life. Several of the shots he fired at the SUV were as the teens were speeding to get away. Mr. Dunn said he was afraid they might return and try to kill him. The police were unable to find the alleged shotgun.
Mr. Dunn’s attorney says that after all the facts are known it will be clear that he acted in self-defense. The attorney has requested a SYG immunity hearing.
David William Pear is a social, political and economic commentator.