Ever since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida (and elsewhere) has become a major point of contention. More recently, Florida legislators shifted the burden of proof even further in the direction of the prosecution in cases involving someone who “stood their ground.” According to a measure signed into law on June 9th by Governor Rick Scott, a prosecution team must show in a pre-trial hearing “clear and convincing evidence” to override “immunity from criminal prosecution.” But Judge Milton Hirsch of the Miami-Dade Circuit Court put a (provisional) stop to the law earlier this month, saying that the measure was unconstitutional.
The initial Stand Your Ground law – and subsequent interpretations thereof – placed the onus on the defendant to show that the shooter was indeed acting in self-defense and not out of maliciousness. Now, under the new law, the burden has been spun around so that the criminal defendant need only claim self-defense, after which the prosecution must supply evidence to the contrary during a pretrial immunity hearing. And, as noted by Hirsch, the prosecution mustn’t only provide “mere preponderance of the evidence;” instead, it must bring forth “clear and convincing evidence.” These two procedural shifts mark the foundation of Hirsch’s decision.
Hirsch made it clear in his court order that legislators exceeded the bounds of their authority when they authored and voted on legislation that changed judicial procedures, saying such decisions are to be made by the courts. He wrote, “As a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified,” referring to Article II Section 3 of the Florida Constitution. Though the law may still be enforced in other regions of the state, it is likely that the case will be appealed and may even make its way to the Florida Supreme Court where a ruling would be binding throughout the state.
Hirsch’s decision came amidst two relevant cases: one involving a woman by the name of Liletha Rutherford, who was accused of aggravated assault after revealing her gun to an argumentative couple; and another involving Omar Rodriguez, who, after a dispute over dog feces, shot his neighbor dead. Immunity hearings will commence with the burden of proof being placed on the defendants.
The judge’s decision was not welcomed by all. Republican State Senator Rob Bradley has been a major supporter ever since the state passed the initial Stand Your Ground law in 2005. “I would be surprised if this decision were upheld at the appellate level,” he said to the Miami Herald.
And according to Richard Corcoran, the GOP Speaker of the House in Florida, “[I]t is the role of the legislature to write the laws that govern how Floridians may exercise their statutory and constitutional rights.” He continued, “The Florida House will continue to stand with ordinary citizens who exercise their right to self-defense.”
The Deathly Implication
Corcoran and Bradley stand by their sacrosanct law despite its murderous consequences and despite the fact that it essentially deputizes citizens in such a way that they feel empowered to take the law into their own hands. That is, after all, what George Zimmerman did on the night of February 26th, 2012, when he killed a young man eating skittles having just left a relative’s house.
And for those who have argued that the Stand Your Ground law was not a factor in Zimmerman’s acquittal, it is essential to highlight the instructions to the jury in that trial, as revealed by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual […] he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself.”
In closing, Hirsch’s ruling marks a victory for those against unrestrained gun laws and those against tragic and unnecessary death.