George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin case causes many to question 'Stand Your Ground' gun law

PBC residents insist law is flawed

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- Relatives of young men killed in "Stand Your Ground" cases in Palm Beach County over the past five years say they want to testify before the task force studying the controversial law after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford.

"I will do anything I can to get that law changed," said Lisa Palmer, 50, mother of Michael Palmer, who was shot to death after a 2007 boating altercation with another man at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach.

Meanwhile, the shooter in another of those incidents who was exonerated under the law said he sees no similarities between his case and the Sanford killing.

Michael Monahan saw all charges against him dropped after he shot two men who boarded his boat last April amid a squabble over unpaid boating violations. That incident also happened in the waters off Phil Foster Park.

"I don't see many similarities at all with my case," said Monahan, 66. "This man who did the shooting in this new case followed that kid. He was walking around with a gun. The fact that he got out of his truck to go after the kid means the kid wasn't trying to get into the truck. That differs from my understanding of the law."

Martin, who was black, was killed Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, in a gated community in Sanford. The teen, who was staying nearby, was on his way back from a convenience store with candy and a drink when he was seen by Zimmerman, who called 911 and said he had spotted a "suspicious" person. On the 911 tapes, a dispatcher advises Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle. Zimmerman didn't. Instead, he followed Martin and later told police that Martin attacked him, which is why he shot Martin in the chest.

The stand-your-ground law, enacted in Florida in 2005 and the first of its kind in the nation, allows individuals who feel threatened to use deadly force to defend themselves. Gov. Rick Scott named a task force to study it in response to the nationwide clamor over the case.

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"I feel absolutely terrible for that boy's parents," said Judy Mohlman, 70, whose son Ramie, 49, was one of the two men shot and killed by Monahan. "He was only 17, that boy in that Sanford case. My son was older, but that's still no excuse. The issue is the same one."

Monahan had bought a 35-foot sailboat from Ramie Mohlman months before the shooting. He had then apparently racked up tickets for boating violations, but because the title had not been transferred, Mohlman was being held responsible for them. Mohlman had complained to the older man once before - but, according to testimony, had not produced the tickets. On April 3, Mohlman went to the boat with his friend Matthew Vittum to confront Monahan.

An autopsy later revealed that Mohlman had a blood-alcohol level of 0.23 percent, almost three times the limit at which a person is a person is considered too intoxicated to drive. Vittum's level was 0.11 percent, slightly over the limit. He also had cocaine in his blood. Neither man was armed, but Monahan told police he felt his life was threatened and that he shot them in self-defense.

Testimony in the trial revealed that neither of the men touched Monahan and that Vittum had been shot by Monahan from 20 feet away. But Circuit Judge Richard Oftedahl ruled that actual physical contact was not necessary for the stand-your-ground law to be invoked. He dismissed the charges against Monahan, who says today what he said then: that he acted in self-defense.

"I just hope that they look at the law," Judy Mohlman said. "It gives a person a right to shoot someone without having to think, and I say that's wrong. Let's say you don't like your neighbor. He comes over. There are no other witnesses. Suddenly, 'bang, bang,' he's dead, and nobody knows what really happened. This law could bring a lot of bad things to a lot of people."

"And this should also not be one judge's choice," Mohlman added. "Juries should decide these cases."

'Too many loopholes'

Ginger Payne, 52, whose son Jason, 22, was shot to death outside a party in Wellington in November 2007, also thinks the law needs to be rewritten.

Jason Payne was hosting the party. According to trial testimony, William Wilkerson Jr., 19, arrived and at one point was flirting with Payne's girlfriend. Payne asked him to leave. Both men were drunk, and others at the party said Wilkerson then threatened to kill Payne.

But he left and Payne followed him to his truck. Payne, who was unarmed, struck the window of the truck twice, breaking it. Wilkerson then shot Payne in the chest, killing him.

A jury ruled that Wilkerson was not guilty of murder on the basis of the stand-your-ground law. He later was convicted of a lesser charge of discharging a firearm from a vehicle

and sentenced to four years in prison.

"We couldn't understand it," Ginger Payne said. "He was in his vehicle and could have left instead of firing his gun. Also, he was found guilty of firing a gun from a vehicle. And if that's a crime, how can the murder that resulted not be a crime?

"You are giving people an open-ended invitation to shoot first and then say they were scared for their life," Payne said. "This didn't happen in somebody's home. That's a different thing. This happened out in the open street. The law has too many loopholes. They need to look at it."

Jury acquits shooter

Lisa Palmer has been following the Sanford shooting and has an opinion.

"That is a misappropriation of authority," she said of Zimmerman's actions on the night of the killing. She also said she hopes the case results in the repeal of the stand-your-ground law.

Her son, Michael, 23, was shot to death in May 2007 after he got into a fistfight with Timothy McTigue, 43, at Phil Foster Park. The two ended up in the water and fought for about 30 seconds, and McTigue shot Palmer as the unarmed, younger man was pushing himself up onto a floating dock.

McTigue was charged with second-degree murder. His attorney told jurors that McTigue feared for his life and that Palmer's blood-alcohol count was 0.29 percent, more than three times the level at which a person is presumed to be intoxicated .

The prosecution argued that McTigue had armed himself after the two exchanged words and used deadly force unnecessarily - without firing a warning shot or displaying the gun to ward off Palmer.

"Mr. Palmer had retreated," prosecutor Barbara Burns said.

But the jury disagreed and found McTigue not guilty.

Palmer's grandmother, Bonnie, 78, is glad to hear a task force has been formed to review the law.

"I would hope they do something to fix it," she said. "They should talk to some of the families affected by this.

"They would get a different perspective. I'm sure the law was meant to protect people, but like a lot of things that were supposed to be good, sometimes they turn bad."

Staff researchers Michelle Quigley and Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.


Three other cases

The 'stand your ground' law was used as a successful defense after shooting incidents in these three other Palm Beach County cases:

February 2007: Daniel Scott Merkel, 17, a student at Palm Beach Central High School, went to the home of fellow student Ricardo Collier IV at night to confront him over an incident involving Merkel's girlfriend. Merkel pounded on the door repeatedly. Collier's father, Ricardo III, said he thought Merkel, a 215-pound student wrestler, was beating down the door. He shot the teenager in the chest. Merkel survived.

October 2006: Norman Borden, 44, fired 14 shots from his 9mm handgun at three men in a Jeep who he said shouted threats at him and tried to run him over as he walked his four dogs early one morning in the Westgate neighborhood near West Palm Beach. Killed were Christopher Araujo, 19, and Saul Trejo, 21. Juan Mendez, 20, was wounded.

September 2006: Christopher Cote, 19, of The Acreage, got into an argument at 3 a.m. with a neighbor, Jose Tapanes, 63, as Cote was out walking his dog. Tapanes, a Cuban-American, claimed the younger man had thrown a beer bottle at him and told him to go back to Cuba. Cote claimed Tapanes had pointed a gun at him. Cote, who had been drinking, went to Tapanes' house and either knocked or banged on his door. Tapanes shot Cote twice with a shotgun, killing him. Tapanes was originally convicted of manslaughter, but he won a new trial and was acquitted in 2011.

Source: Palm Beach Post archives

Florida's 'stand your ground' law

Florida Statute 776.013 (3): 'A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.'

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