'People emboldened': Stand your ground laws face new scrutiny; George Zimmerman's lawyer isn't a fan
A recent decision not to charge a man who shot and killed another man in a convenience store parking lot because of Florida’s “stand your ground” law prompted protests. USA TODAY
Mark O'Mara, the lawyer who helped put "stand your ground" in the national lexicon when he defended George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, is quick to point out that he didn't use the defense and isn't an avid fan of Florida's law.
The statute is under intense scrutiny again more than six years later – this time after a fatal altercation over a handicapped parking space outside a Clearwater convenience store.
Video from the scene a week ago shows Markeis McGlockton, a black father of three, push Michael Drejka, who is white, to the ground. Drejka draws a handgun and fires one shot. McGlockton stumbles away and later died.
On Thursday, Benjamin Crump, who represents McGlockton's family, expressed outrage over the decision not to charge Drejka and called for changes to Florida's "discriminatory" statute.
"We are here to demand justice for the cold-blooded murder of Markeis McGlockton by the self-appointed, wannabe cop Michael Drejka," Crump said. "This follows a long line of these alleged stand-your-ground murders in the state of Florida."
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, in announcing his decision to file no charges, has said the law grants immunity from arrest.
O'Mara said he understands why Gualtieri didn't arrest Drejka, who has a concealed-carry permit and who could have faced thousands of dollars in legal fees. An improper arrest might have left the the sheriff's office vulnerable in a civil case, O'Mara said.
"Look, the reason the sheriff didn't make an arrest is that he could potentially be sued," O'Mara said. He said that as a defense lawyer he has no problem with the law: It could help his clients. But as a person, he isn't so sure.
"The problem I have is that people misinterpret the statute and are emboldened to use a gun," he said. "Look at this case. Pointing the gun? Absolutely. Shooting a warning shot? Fine. But shooting him?"
Most states have some form of a stand-your-ground law. Florida's says people have no “duty to retreat” if they believe deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm.
The law also provides immunity from arrest, prosecution and civil liability for people who invoke the law. Officers are prevented from arresting a person who used deadly force unless they determine probable cause exists that the force was illegal. And in 2017, Florida lawmakers switched the burden of proof to prosecutors when the statute is invoked.
Florida's statute requires that circumstances be viewed from the perspective of the shooter, O'Mara said. Drejka was knocked down. He was afraid. His heart was racing and, O'Mara said, Drejka's judgment was impaired.
O'Mara is not involved in the Clearwater case but knows Crump well.
When Zimmerman shot Martin in February 2012 after a struggle on a street in Sanford, O'Mara defended Zimmerman. Zimmerman was 28 and a Neighborhood Watch leader. Martin was 17, black and unarmed. Crump represented Martin's family.
The case drew the national spotlight and, when Zimmerman said he had feared for his life, that light shone on stand your ground. His acquittal set off protests across the nation, but O'Mara said Zimmerman had the law firmly on his side.
And the law wasn't stand your ground.
"Stand your ground only applies if you have the opportunity to flee," O'Mara said. "Zimmerman was on his back. It was strictly self-defense."
Centuries-old legal principles dictate that when a person is confronted with a possible threat to his or her safety in a public place, the person must retreat before using deadly force if doing so is practical and safe. Stand your ground changes the rules.
"I still like the idea that we have, if not an obligation, at least a suggestion that we try to avoid using a gun until the last possible moment," O'Mara said.
There have been other notable stand-your-ground cases in Florida.
In 2014, a dispute in a movie theater ended in the fatal shooting of theatergoer Chad Oulson. Curtis Reeves, a retired police officer, faces trial next year on a charge of second-degree murder. Courts have thus far rejected the stand-your-ground defense in the case.
And former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja’s effort to invoke the statute in the October 2015 shooting death of stranded motorist Corey Jones also has thus far been rejected.
In Clearwater, Gualtieri said Drejka, 47, was cooperative in the investigation. He told officers that "after being slammed to the ground, he felt he was going to be further attacked," the sheriff said.
If the races had been reversed in the Clearwater case, Crump said, a black shooter would have been charged. O'Mara said racial bias is undeniable, in people and in the criminal justice system. And he said there are lessons to be learned, from not parking in handicapped spaces to leaving enforcement of laws to law enforcement.
"Will we learn anything from all of the lessons presented by this one bullet? If history is a teacher, the answer is no," O'Mara said. "But maybe someday some bullet will actually strike us in a place where we will not only shed a tear, but stop, change direction and listen more to the laws of God."