Under Stand Your Ground law, a spike in justifiable homicides — but there may be many causes

In the furious debate surrounding the Trayvon Martin killing, Florida's Stand Your Ground law and its possible consequences have come under intense scrutiny. What do the actual data show?

First, it's indisputable that there has been a marked statewide increase in justifiable homicides since the law was passed, but many factors may be at work.

No official tabulation is kept of the number of times the Stand Your Ground law has been invoked in death cases, but a Sun Sentinel analysis of Florida Department of Law Enforcement records shows killings classified as "justifiable homicides" more than doubled since 2006, a little more than a year after the law was passed.

Experts, however, say the rise can't be wholly attributed to the law, which allows a person to respond with deadly force if they have good reason to feel threatened. Homicides in general rose greatly in Florida after 2005. And more Floridians have been walking around armed: New concealed weapons and firearms permits more than tripled from 2006 through 2010.

"It may simply be when you have a much better armed public, they're much more likely to shoot each other or get shot by police," said Dennis Jay Kenney, criminology professor for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York

The majority of justifiable homicides among civilians occurred during commission of a felony by the victim. But the data show fully 60 percent of all killings ruled justifiable from 2000 to 2010 in Florida involved shootings by police who, because they deal with armed criminals on a daily basis, are trained in the use of deadly force and granted greater leeway in applying it.

Moreover, while the Martin case in the central Florida city of Sanford has ignited racial furor — the victim was a 17-year-old black youth from Miami Gardens, the shooter a white Hispanic — analysis of FDLE records shows it doesn't fit the profile of the typical justifiable homicide at all.

Since 2006, the greatest portion in Florida of such killings, 38 percent, involved blacks killing other blacks, the data show. Whites killing whites followed at 34 percent.

Only 16 percent of the cases involved whites killing blacks. Blacks took white lives in 4 percent of the cases.

From 2007 through 2010, the Sun Sentinel found, 388 killings in Florida were ruled justifiable homicides. Over the previous seven years, there had been only 237 such cases. (As already noted, nearly two-thirds the cases deemed justifiable involved shootings by police, who are not subject to the Stand Your Ground law.)

The law may well be one factor for the increase, Kenney said. "Whereas before citizens would be more inclined to back away, they're less inclined to now," he said.

What happened in Sanford on the drizzly evening of Feb. 26 has been hotly disputed, but one fact is indisputable: Martin was killed by a single bullet to the chest after an encounter with an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who said the teen had attacked him.

Police, citing the Stand Your Ground law, did not charge Zimmerman.

Prosecutors and law enforcement generally have condemned the law, and many seem to want to revoke it entirely rather than tweak it. "I don't know how you fix it," said Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. "It's an extension of the 'Castle Doctrine' [that people are entitled to use lethal force to defend themselves in their homes] into the streets, and it eliminates the duty to retreat that we used to have in the street situations."

It's not only in the Martin case that to some, the threat has not appeared grave enough to warrant invoking the protections of Stand Your Ground.

Wendy Lavoie, of Coconut Creek, sister of an unarmed man shot to death in a road rage case, said the law encourages violence rather than protecting innocent citizens. "To use it out on the street like this is the OK Corral? This isn't the Old West," she said

Patrick Lavoie, a 33-year-old father of two, was felled with a single bullet to the heart on a Pompano Beach street in September 2010. He had angrily charged toward a pickup truck driven by Cleveland Murdock, upset that Murdock had been tailgating him. When Lavoie reached in the truck to open the door, Murdock fired. A grand jury, citing the Stand Your Ground law, absolved him.

"I can't understand justifying deadly force with a weapon when the other person doesn't have one," Wendy Lavoie said. "He absolutely should have been charged with manslaughter."

Another Stand Your Ground case of someone shooting an defenseless person occurred in central Florida in November 2009. Shane Beil, whose Tavares home business had been burglarized in the past, caught a prowler in his yard early one morning. He shot the man, Brett Lee Canada, 23, in the back. He was cleared under the Stand Your Ground law.

"This man got away with murder," Canada's father, Keith, said at the time.

A double killing aboard a sailboat in Palm Beach County

last April also fell under the law.

Michael Monahan, 65 at the time, shot and killed Raymond Mohlman, 49, a former professional wrestler, and Matthew Vittum after they boarded the vessel Monahan had bought from Mohlman. The intruders wanted to collect $500 worth of tickets Monahan had racked up in Mohlman's name for not registering the boat properly.

Monahan shot the unarmed pair, who were drunk, at a distance of 20 feet. A judge ruled the Stand Your Ground law applied, the first such case in Palm Beach County .

"I don't understand it," Mohlman's mother, Judy, told reporters at the time from Michigan. "I didn't know the law down in Florida was so different."

Saying it has "left a string of killings thoughout Florida," State Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, plans to sponsor legislation to change Stand Your Ground. He has cited the dramatic rise in justifiable homicide cases as one reason to do so.

But at least one specialist is skeptical that the law has led to more killing. Robert Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, said the spike in justifiable homicides could be explained simply by how the cases are reported by police. Under Stand Your Ground, a deadly force case doesn't need to be resolved by a jury; police or a judge can make that determination.

"When you have a Stand Your Ground law in place, it then becomes easier to simply chalk up an incident to Stand Your Ground," Jarvis said. "It makes it easier to wrap cases up by saying, 'This is a justifiable self defense.' "

Without the law, "you have to go a little further to prove self defense," he said.

However, Jarvis is no fan of the law, and worries it is being misinterpreted by the public. He's also concerned about the growth in justifiable homicides.

"These statistics certainly raise eyebrows and should be investigated further," he said.

Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

rnolin@tribune.com or 954-356-4525