FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Members of the public have radically different and emotional opinions on the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.
Senator Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, knew that already. But he invited members of the public to an open forum Wednesday to express themselves on the controversial law, because he grew frustrated waiting for Gov. Rick Scott to convene the task force promised after the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford on Feb. 23.
Some two dozen persons spoke, from both sides of the issue -- those who believe the law should stand and those convinced it should repealed. A few tried to find middle ground but for most of the participants there was no such middle ground, demonstrating the clear divide that exists in Florida over the law -- even within the law enforcement community.
Arthur Jacobs, general counsel for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents all 20 state attorneys in Florida, said his organization recently voted unanimously that the law should be repealed.
"It's not a thing that can be tweaked," Jacobs said.
He said there was no need for the law, since self-defense was already a right before the law passed in 2005. He also said prosecutors are seeing cases where gang members and individuals involved "in drug deals gone bad" are invoking the law, after shooting rivals.
"We work with it every day," Jacobs said. "We've studied it and we have decided it needs to be repealed."
But Cliff Zipnick, 54, a veteran Lake Clarke Shores police officer, took the opposite view.
"I oppose any changes in the law" he said. "It will save the lives of innocents."
Trayvon Martin, of Miami Gardens, was shot to death by George Zimmerman, 28, a volunteer neighborhood watchdog in a gated community in Sanford. Martin, who was staying there in the home of his father's girlfriend, walked to a nearby store after dark and was returning when he was spotted by Zimmerman.
Zimmerman left his vehicle and pursued the young man on foot. A 911 operator advised him he shouldn't. Minutes later Martin, unarmed, was dead. Zimmerman has claimed Martin jumped him from behind, knocked him to the ground and beat his head against the ground and that he shot Martin in self-defense.
Witnesses saw a scuffle, but apparently no one has told police that they saw exactly how that scuffle started, who struck first. The case has thrown a spotlight on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows a person who feels in danger of being killed or of suffering serious injury to use deadly force to protect him- or herself.
During the event Wednesday night at Broward's main library in downtown Fort Lauderdale, one point of contention was whether the law has made Florida safer and more attractive to tourists.
Leona Theriault, 63, a snowbird from Ontario who lives much of the year in Greenacres, and who has been coming to Florida for many years, said she and other snowbirds she knows feel less secure due to the controversial law, which she said has led to more gunplay.
"We do not feel safe here," she told the panel. "I'm not just talking about Canadian snowbirds but American snowbirds who are our friends."
She said she her husband had discussed what to do in the future. "We are talking about not coming at all any more," she said.
But Joe Budd, 48, of Boca Raton, a former Republican candidate for Congress in District 19, argued that Florida had become safer since the law went into effect. He said although violent crime decreased all around the country in the last half of the past decade, while the U.S. rate dropped 13.2 percent, Florida's fell even more -- 23.1 percent. He said allegations that the "Stand Your Ground" law would hurt tourism were wrong and he accused Smith, who made those claims, of "misleading" the public.
He also lashed out at the Rev. Al Sharpton, the African-American leader who has led demonstrations in Sanford demanding that charges be brought against Zimmerman. He accused Sharpton of "race-baiting."
"You should ask Al Sharpton to go home," he said to Smith.
Over 100 members of public attended at least part of the session. Among them was a group of black students from Lauderhill Middle School, who read from letters they had written to Smith.
"I am trying not to make this about racism but this case is serious," read Choulaine Honorat, 15. "Why hasn't this been investigated the right way? Why hasn't justice been served? Why is the guilty man free to walk the streets? I'm pretty sure if a colored man would've killed a 'suspicious' looking white man, his life would have ended in prison. I am disappointed in this world and I am disappointed in this government."
Among the members of legal panel was Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout. She said she would not repeal the law, but she also said the law may not apply to the Sanford case. "If Mr Zimmerman was the aggressor, I hope he can be and will be prosecuted," she said.
But former state senator Dan Gelber took issue with her, saying
the law as written serves the purposes of Houghwout and other defenders. "It makes it much easier to get people off who shouldn't get off," he said.