The death of Miami’s Trayvon Martin at the hands of a zealous neighborhood watchman spurred a national reckoning on issues of race and justice, inspiring social activism that paved the way for the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Trayvon’s death 10 years ago Saturday also left another legacy: It cast national scrutiny on Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law.
One decade later, that law has only become more robust, expanded by Republican lawmakers with support from gun rights advocates who argue it makes the streets safer and over the objections of critics who say it only encourages “shoot first” vigilantism. It’s also become a powerful weapon for defense lawyers, making it more difficult for police and prosecutors to makes cases in everything from high-profile gun battles between violent criminals to little-noticed brawls and even the shooting of dogs.
Florida’s stand your ground law has now become a regular feature of South Florida’s justice system, for good or for bad — depending on what side you represent.
For the family of Frankie Cordero, for example, it’s an outrage that his killer hasn’t been charged.
Cordero was shot to death in South Miami-Dade in March 2021 by his friend, Jonathan Clemente, who claimed he was in fear for his life during an altercation. The two friends had spent the day together. Clemente was seen pulling a gun on his friend earlier that night at a gas station.
But what happened later during a physical struggle outside a South Miami-Dade house remains unknown. There’s no witness or video to disprove Clemente’s self-defense claim — a key feature of the law. The investigation, for now, remains open.
“Jonathan had a gun. Frankie did not,” said Cordero’s mother, Carolyn Villalobos. “The one who was hostile was Jonathan.”
But there are many more cases, defense lawyers say, that prove the law works as intended. Like the case of Miami’s Johan Smith, who hit his brother with a bat — only after his sibling brandished a machete during an argument. No one was killed, and a judge agreed that Smith acted in self-defense, tossing out a charge of aggravated battery.
Smith’s defense lawyer said that while the law may be painted as a “license to kill” in some cases like the death of Martin, it gives wrongfully accused people a way to prevail, even before going to trial.
“Prior to the SYG law, we could only assert self-defense or defense of others as an affirmative defense at trial,” attorney Brian Kirlew said. “Most clients are fearful of trial and take plea deals out of convenience. The SYG gives us a formidable weapon to seek justice for the wrongly accused.”
On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers and gun-control activists cited Trayvon’s case in announcing a national task force to try and repeal such “Shoot First” laws in states across the country, including Florida. They also sought to re-characterize how the laws are portrayed in the media and in political debates.
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“Shoot-first laws aren’t about standing your ground when threatened. They are about making murder legal, empowering people with racist or vigilante views to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control advocacy group.
“We must re-frame the debate so Americans can honestly assess if they want to live in a shoot-first country.”
They spoke the same week that a new study concluded that stand your ground laws in 23 states “were associated” with an increase in rates of homicide and firearm homicides, of between 8 and 11 percent. The peer-reviewed study, by JAMA Network Open, concluded that the spike in homicides and gun homicides reached 10 percent or higher in Southern states such as Florida.
The authors of the study, which analyzed data between 1999 and 2017, concluded that the laws don’t reduce and deter crime as supporters contend. “There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to show that and, you know, we only seem to see the opposite effect,” David Humphreys, a University of Oxford associate professor and study co-author, told The Washington Post.
Florida’s law was the first of its kind when passed in 2005. With high-profile backing of the powerful National Rifle Association, the law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat before using deadly force to counter a threat of death or great bodily harm. But perhaps most vexing for prosecutors, the law gave judges — well before a jury trial — an easier path to grant “immunity” to someone they deem to be acting in self-defense.
Many Florida police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors opposed the law, saying it would provide a license to kill. But it had the backing of the NRA and powerful gun-industry lobbyist Marion Hammer, who once told the Orlando Sentinel: “If you came at me, and I felt that my life was in danger or that I was going to be injured, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you.”
Death after death
In the years after its passage, Florida media chronicled example after example of gunmen killing unarmed people and beating charges under the law — including a man who shot and killed two unarmed men outside a Northwest Miami-Dade Chili’s restaurant, and a woman who shot and killed an unarmed man during a brawl outside a Kendall strip club.
But it was the Trayvon Martin case that made the law a national social and political flash point. In 2012, Sanford police cited the law in not initially arresting George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon, a Black teenager from Miami Gardens who was visiting his father.
Zimmerman, who followed Trayvon after falsely believing he was a neighborhood prowler, was later charged with second-degree murder. He chose not to ask a judge to grant him immunity, and instead took his case to the jury — which heard legal instructions that Zimmerman had “no duty to retreat.” Jurors acquitted Zimmerman.
“Florida’s law, the nation’s first modern-day ‘shoot first’ law, helped someone get away with murder,” Monisha Henley, the senior director of state government affairs for Everytown for Gun Safety, said during Thursday’s press conference, referring to Martin’s death. “And yet, 29 states have some form of ‘shoot first’ on the books today.”
Florida’s law was broadened as well by Republican lawmakers — most notably in 2017, when they changed the legal standard for “immunity hearings,” over objections of state prosecutors.
Now, at those pretrial hearings, prosecutors shoulder the burden of disproving a defendant’s self-defense claim. Under the law, prosecutors must now prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that a defendant was not acting in self-defense.
The claims have bordered on the absurd, like the Miami tennis instructor who claimed self-defense in hitting a 5-year-old “armed” with a racket (he wound up taking a plea deal), or the Miami man who filed a claim after fatally shooting his neighbor’s two dogs, Buffy and Thor (the claim helped him get a generous plea deal).
A South Miami-Dade man named Daishun Doctor is only the latest in a long string of defendants to ask a judge to dismiss his case before it reaches a trial or jury.
In May 2020, Doctor was driving down a street in Perrine, when he spotted a neighborhood rival, Devin Smith, who happened to be riding a motorbike in the oncoming direction. Like a scene out of a movie, surveillance video shows, Doctor slowed down his car, opened the door, and fired a volley of bullets — hurling Smith from the speeding bike.
Doctor’s defense lawyer, Michael Grieco, insists that Doctor — from afar — saw Smith reaching for his waistband. “In turn, the defendant, who was simply driving home with a passenger, reached for and discharged his firearm multiple times as was his legal right to do so,” Grieco wrote in his motion.
After an immunity hearing last month, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Laura Stuzin is still mulling her decision.
In many high-profile cases over the past decades, Florida judges have nonetheless sided with prosecutors in immunity claims.
Among those denied immunity: Kendall’s Omar Rodriguez, who shot and killed an unarmed man in a dispute over dog poop; four young men accused of beating up gay men at a Pride Parade on South Beach; and Tampa’s Curtis Reeves, who shot and killed an unarmed movie theater patron after the man threw popcorn at him (Reeves is currently on trial before a jury).
But the impact of the law is much bigger than what actually shows up on court dockets. Often times, the cases never even wind up there. No arrests are made or prosecutors decline to press charges.
“The hardest part is we often have two people who are armed or confronting each other — and it’s a challenge figuring out who is the aggressor, said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague, who spearheads the legal analyses on many self-defense cases.
That’s what happened in the case of Jonathan Spignolio and Carlos Mena, former brothers-in-law with a history of bad blood between them. On Jan. 10, 2021, Mena rushed over to Spignolio’s house in Hialeah. The reason: Spignolio had punched Mena’s sister during a domestic squabble.
According to a final memo in the case, when Mena got out of his car unarmed, Spignolio started shooting at him. Mena ran back to his car, retrieved a weapon, and a gun battle ensued outside the home.
Each man was struck by a bullet. Spignolio died. Mena survived a gunshot to the chest.
Even though Spignolio was outside his own home, prosecutors said, he was the one who started it — pointing the gun and firing at Mena, who got his gun and fired in self-defense.
“For these reasons,” the memo said,” no charges shall be filed.”