JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
As we just heard, the president pointedly addressed the self-defense law known as Stand Your Ground.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?
LYDEN: And that's our cover story today: Where we stand on Stand Your Ground?
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LYDEN: In Florida, the law expands the use of deadly force into the public's fear with no obligation to back down. To understand why Florida is the birthplace of the Stand Your Ground law, we go back nearly a decade to late summer of 2004.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...West Florida. And we think the storm will move in on Thursday morning, and it will mostly likely be a major hurricane...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...tremendous wind, and sheets of rain continue to come on down. You can hear the wind howling.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hurricane Ivan is now starting to lash the panhandle of Florida.
LYDEN: That summer, hurricanes ravaged Florida, killing dozens and causing billions in damage. Hurricane Ivan struck in late September. Dennis Baxley was then and is now a state representative in Florida, and he remembers that summer all too well.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE DENNIS BAXLEY: We had a lot of properties in disarray. We had a number of people trying to prevent their property from being looted, and also just nowhere to go.
LYDEN: That included a 77-year-old retiree named James Workman and his wife, Kathy. The storm left the couple's house mostly unlivable, so the Workmans left for a few weeks. In that period after the hurricane, Florida's Gulf Coast had a huge influx of cleanup workers and also looters and itinerants who took shelter in semi-abandoned homes like the Workmans.
The couple returned to their home in early November. The night they got back, they slept in a FEMA trailer parked in the driveway. While they were sleeping, Workman said that his wife, Kathy, awoke to the sound of a stranger fumbling at the front door of their vacant house.
JAMES WORKMAN: He was trying to get in this house, trying to get in this door. And so she hollered at him and - we hollered at him and went outside and tried to get him to leave.
LYDEN: Back in 2006, Workman told that story to WEAR, a local TV news channel in Pensacola. He'd gone to investigate, he said, and the man appeared to leave but actually he was heading for their trailer.
WORKMAN: After I saw him enter that trailer, then I naturally went in there behind him. And so he was between Kathy and me. And we got into a scuffle, and I could tell it wouldn't going to be easy. And so I just had to shoot him.
LYDEN: In the scuffle, the intruder had wrapped the 77-year-old Workman in a bear hug. Workman said he fired his shot in self-defense. But to the police and the state attorney, the circumstances were unclear. It took nearly three months for the state attorney's office to decide whether James Workman would face charges. In the end, he didn't. But the period of limbo was unacceptable to some Florida legislators, including Dennis Baxley.
Just weeks after that decision, he co-sponsored the Stand Your Ground law in the Florida House of Representatives.
BAXLEY: What I had envisioned is that a law-abiding citizen, if attacked, would feel fully empowered to stop a violent act.
LYDEN: More from Dennis Baxley later on. Florida, as everywhere, had always had a self-defense law. What Stand Your Ground changed was that you could now use deadly force anywhere you happen to be legally standing, without having to try to run away. The law passed overwhelmingly in April 2005 and took effect that October.
Kris Hundley is an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. She remembers that time, and she says the bill was not without criticism.
KRIS HUNDLEY: There were many complaints that the law was very vaguely written and confusing to police, prosecutors, judges and juries.
LYDEN: And after the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, her newspaper published an investigation of every case in the state where Stand Your Ground had been invoked. They looked at about 200 cases.
HUNDLEY: We found that nearly 70 percent of the people who used the Stand Your Ground defense had gone free. Thirty-five percent were not even charged by prosecutors; 23 percent were given immunity by the judge. And this is a special feature of the Stand Your Ground law, that you can go before the judge and argue Stand Your Ground pretrial and then be given immunity, which basically dismisses the case.
LYDEN: As you took a look at this, how did race play in, or did it?
HUNDLEY: The race question was murky. If you looked at the victims, cases of fatalities, we found the defendants who were claiming Stand Your Ground were more likely to prevail if the victim was black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty, and that compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white person.
When you look at the race of the victim, it's one thing. Interestingly, if you look at the defendants, we found that white defendants who invoked the law were charged at the same rate as blacks. Whites who went to trial were convicted at the same rate as blacks. But remember, most of the cases we found were same race. It was white on white and black on black. We found only less than a dozen mixed race cases.
LYDEN: Obviously from your reporting, there are times when judges feel frustrated by the law. You write about a case in Leon County. And you write about this judge, Terry Lewis, in 2010. He's trying to find out what happened in basically a gang shootout. Can you tell me about that?
HUNDLEY: Right. This was a case in which a 15-year-old boy was killed in a gang shootout in Tallahassee. And the judge said he had no choice but grant immunity to two men who fired the AK-47 that was responsible for that death, even though they fired 25 to 30 times. And the reason he had to grant them immunity was because it couldn't be proven that they had fired first. And, in fact, there were observers who said that it was a small handgun fired that they heard first. So the killers went free.
LYDEN: Kris Hundley of the Tampa Bay Times. Dennis Baxley is the Florida state representative from Ocala who helped author the Stand Your Ground law back in 2005. I talked with him about the application of this law since then, including that case.
BAXLEY: You could not be doing anything unlawful. So I don't see this law is appropriately applied using it with gang members or in pursuit and confront or following people away from a crime and creating a confrontation.
LYDEN: He concedes that the application of the law sometimes makes him uneasy.
BAXLEY: I'll be quite frank with you, I have been mystified by some of the rulings that have come out of this, knowing the intent that went into this bill.
LYDEN: Baxley notes that Stand Your Ground was not explicitly mentioned in George Zimmerman's trial, but the language of the law was included in the jurors' instructions. And it's overshadowed the entire case.
BAXLEY: The hide was pulled back on a much broader issue, and that is, is everyone equally treated before the law? And I think that's why so many people identify with the case - that and a horrific outcome. No one wishes for anyone to die a violent death, and particularly in such a needless situation.
LYDEN: So you would agree that the death of Trayvon Martin was a needless one?
BAXLEY: I think it was a needless death from all the facts that I saw demonstrated in the case. It became clear that he was unnecessarily treated with suspicion. And I think it angered him, and I think it would anger me to be treated needlessly with suspicion. But instead of doing what he had a right to do, which is to walk home, out of his anger, I think he did return for a fight. And that turned out horribly.
LYDEN: Let me ask you this. You say that you yourself have been mystified as to how this has been applied in a number of cases. As you think about all this, is there any adjustment that you would give to this law?
BAXLEY: My position on it is I'm not immutable. I'm listening. I'm very admiring of the restraint that the Martin family has demonstrated. But, yes, of course, we should be responsive and listen and look at what we have. Right now, I would be cautious because there are people advocating the repeal of this statute, dramatically diminishing its effectiveness. And I'm concerned for the people of Florida and our guests that we don't want to diminish for law-abiding citizens their ability to protect themselves from harm. And 70 percent of Floridians agree with me.
LYDEN: Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley. More than 30 states have now passed a Stand Your Ground law identical or similar to Florida's. And just hours before the president's impromptu statement yesterday, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois asked to hold hearings on the laws. Those hearings likely will be held in September. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.