COLLIER COUNTY — Florida’s self-defense law could be tested in the case of a former Palmetto Ridge High School student accused of fatally stabbing a classmate.
Donald Day, the lawyer for 15-year-old Jorge Saavedra, is expected to file a motion Tuesday claiming Saavedra is protected against prosecution on a manslaughter charge by the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Saavedra is charged as a juvenile in the stabbing death of Dylan Nuno, 16, at a Golden Gate bus stop in January.
“It was a group of kids chasing him down the street, attacking him and beating him,” Day said.
Lawyers for both sides are expected at a Tuesday afternoon hearing before Collier Circuit Judge Lauren Brodie. A date could to be set for a “Stand Your Ground” hearing, which Day described as a “mini-trial” with Brodie ruling on the motion.
The “Stand Your Ground” law, passed in 2005, allows for the use of force, including deadly force, when a person is attacked “in any other place where he or she has the right to be” and “if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm … or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Day said Saavedra was being assaulted when he stabbed Nuno. Collier County Sheriff’s Office reports said Nuno threw the first punches and Saavedra fought back, stabbing Nuno in the stomach. Nuno was hospitalized and pronounced dead later that day.
Nuno’s father, Renier Nuno, said his son wasn’t armed during the fight.
“My son didn’t have a knife, so how are you going to defend yourself?” Renier Nuno said.
Witnesses have disagreed on whether the fight was pre-arranged. A few classmates have said in media interviews that the boys agreed to fight while on the bus, but Day said none of roughly 20 people deposed so far have said the fight was planned.
Another 10 to 12 are expected to be deposed in the next few weeks, Day said.
“None of those witnesses have come forward. Not one,” Day said of those saying the fight was planned.
Prosecutors can’t comment on active juvenile cases or motions that haven’t been filed, State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Samantha Syoen said. Transcripts of the depositions are exempt from public record in juvenile cases.
Since lawmakers passed the “Stand Your Ground” law, many legal procedures for handling such claims have been unclear. Motions for “Stand Your Ground” are now decided before trial by a judge, and a “preponderance of the evidence” must be found to grant a motion, according to an state appeals court ruling.
“During the motion hearing, I have to convince a judge by 51 percent,” said Richard Hersch, a Coconut Grove-based defense lawyer who had a “Stand Your Ground” stabbing case go to a state appeals court last year.
Trial and appeals judges have had to decide what evidence is admissible, whether motions can be dismissed because of disputes over evidence, and whether judges or juries should decide the motions, among other issues. It has often left those in the legal profession frustrated by the lack of direction, Hersch said.
“The Legislature says, ‘We’ve got this new immunity provision. You go figure out how to work it,’ and it gets dumped on the courts and prosecutors,” Hersch said.
Day said some questions about admissible evidence could be discussed Tuesday, including whether Brodie should consider claims that Nuno had bullied Saavedra before the stabbing. Several letters written to Brodie in April by Nuno’s friends denied bullying took place, though Day contends a pattern of bullying existed. Renier Nuno said he doubted his son was bullying another student.
“He was a friendly guy,” Renier Nuno said. “I’m pretty sure he had fights like everybody else when you’re young, but he’s never been violent or had any arrests.”