WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Members of a task force reviewing Florida's "stand your ground" law expressed wide support Wednesday for the statute's core provision that deadly force can be used if necessary to prevent death or serious injury.
Though the discussions of the Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection remained precursors to their ultimate recommendations to Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, members voiced strong approval of the notion that citizens have no duty to retreat if seriously threatened.
Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley called the idea of redefining the law's "duty to retreat" provision "incomprehensible." The Rev. R.B. Holmes, the committee's vice chairman, said it was "a Christian virtue." Circuit Judge Krista Marx said the fact that 25 other states followed Florida's lead in establishing such a law "speaks volumes."
"There could be no more important right than to protect your life and the lives of your family members," said Miami defense attorney Mark Seiden, who said it was a "God-given right."
Absent from the first several hours of discussion was any mention of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old whose fatal shooting by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman sparked mass outrage and the establishment of the task force.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the February shooting, claiming self-defense. The 2005 "stand your ground" legislation has been widely cited in the case.
Allie Braswell, head of the Central Florida Urban League and a part of the Second Chance on Shoot First campaign, which opposes the law, said he was disheartened by the level of support voiced by the committee's members on Wednesday.
"I always remain open that the right thing will be done and this law will be repealed," said Braswell, who planned to address the committee in a second day of meetings Thursday in Miami, "but I really see that as a challenge with this group."
The day opened with a presentation by a University of Florida law professor, who presented data showing that since the "stand your ground" law was passed, the state has seen an increase in the number of homicides and an increase in the number of homicides ruled justifiable, but a decrease in the overall rate of violent crime. But the professor, Monique Haughton Worrell, said no conclusions could be drawn from the data and it was not known what correlation the numbers had to the law's passage.
The task force members acknowledged "stand your ground" cases were not uniformly handled across the state and that the public has shown some wariness to the way in which it has been applied. Joe Caimano, an attorney appointed to the committee, said Floridians have become skeptical of prosecutors' process of determining whether to charge an individual because of the self-defense law.
But participants seemed to be heading toward recommending tweaks of the legislation, not a repeal. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a sponsor of the law, echoed many of the participants in suggesting any problems with the legislation don't lay in the statute itself.
"The biggest problem is uniformity of application, not the legislation," he said.
That was little comfort to Sandra and David Boden of West Palm Beach, who gave tearful testimony of their son's killing and the subsequent dismissal of the case because they said prosecutors felt they couldn't be successful given the law.
"It is not self-defense when you kill an unarmed young man," David Boden said. "Their hands are tied because of such a vague law."