'Stand your ground' panel hears emotional testimony

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The task force created by Gov. Rick Scott to review Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law heard from experts on security and neighborhood-watch programs at its third meeting Tuesday – along with emotional statements from members of the public who said crime had touched their lives.

The speakers included the widow, mother and friends of Scott Standard, who was killed in front of his home in Citrus County in January 2011. James W. Conner III, a neighbor engaged in a long-running dispute with Standard, shot Standard at least twice, but pleaded self-defense under the “stand your ground” law and was not charged. The only witness, Conner’s wife, supported his claim, but Standard’s family has insisted that Conner was the aggressor.

“This law is written as a license to kill,” Barbara Standard, Scott Standard’s mother, told task force members who met in the rural community of Arcadia. “Are we bitter? You better believe it.”

Other members of the public described their own ordeals.

“This law failed my son,” said Debra Peoples of Tampa, who said her son Chyvas was attacked by gang members in Ybor City and is now serving 30 years for killing one of them. “There’s a disparity in the application and interpretation of the “stand your ground’ law.”

Peoples said her son’s case, “where he was in fear for his life, needs to be reinvestigated and a hearing held.”

But others who testified, like Ed Johnson of Arcadia, said they were crime victims and urged the panel not to weaken the statute. “We need the ‘stand your ground’ law to protect us from evil people,” Johnson said.

The governor formed the task force after neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed teen, Trayvon Martin, who was walking in a gated community in Sanford. When Zimmerman pleaded self-defense under the “stand your ground” law and wasn’t immediately arrested, charges of racism sparked protests across the country.

The task force, which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, is expected to make recommendations to lawmakers about whether the law needs changes, and is collecting testimony and data, with meetings planned through November.

Tuesday morning’s agenda was devoted to expert testimony, while the public spoke in the afternoon.

The expert consensus was that crime-watch volunteers “are not to engage in any kind of confrontation,” as Jane Meier of the Melbourne Police Department’s Volunteer in Partnership Program put it.

Expectations vary from program to program, but crime-watch volunteers agreed that trained volunteers are not vested with any law enforcement authority.

“Our objective is a visible presence,” said Len Smally, manager of the Meadows Community Association in Sarasota, which employs private security. “It certainly deters crime.”

One member of the panel, Judge Krista Marx of Palm Beach County, said the common thread of the expert testimony is that crime-watch volunteers shouldn’t act as law enforcement.

“Under the present state of the law, under ‘stand-your-ground,’ if a neighborhood watch individual were to pursue or confront, they would be perceived as the provoker, and therefore, not be able to avail themselves of ‘stand-your-ground’ immunity,” Marx said.

But Karl “KC” Poulin, president of the Florida Association of Security Companies, said watch volunteers can find themselves in some pretty difficult situations. He said private security officers and neighborhood watch volunteers are often on the front line against crime, when police aren’t always right there.

“I had an officer last year killed in one of these neighborhoods. He was gunned down by a gang member. And then we’re going to ask them as citizens to go out there in that same neighborhood, and get involved with us and communicate with us and tell us what’s going on? That’s a lot to ask,” Pullen said.

After the public testified, which took about 90 minutes, Carroll took a moment to address charges of racial disparity in application of the law. One speaker, Andrea Ortiz, a student of ethics at New College, had referred to an investigation of roughly 200 “stand your ground” cases by the Tampa Bay Times last month.

“Justice cannot be done if white shooters are killing black kids,” said Ortiz.

But Carroll cautioned that the Times’ sample was too small and said the University of Florida is examining all “stand your ground” cases documented by state attorney’s offices and law enforcement agencies for the panel’s review.

“That data we receive to this task force should be what we look at to see if there is disparity in the application and the use of the law, and not just a very small sample coming out of a newspaper article,” Carroll said.

The task force won’t meet in August, but will meet twice in September — on Sept. 12 in Palm Beach and on Sept.13 in Miami.

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