ORLANDO, Fla. - In Florida, there is no law entitled "stand your ground," but there is a section of the Florida statute that says a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and is attacked has a right to stand their ground.
Section 3 of 776.013 of the Florida statutes reads, "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."
Section 3 was added into the law in 2005. Since then, according to statistics compiled by Eyewitness News, there have been 31 cases in central Florida in which this immunity clause has come into play, and in a majority of those cases, the defendant has avoided prison time.
Of the 31 cases compiled by Eyewitness News, nine suspects have been black, 18 white, three Hispanic, and one of Asian descent.
Convictions have not trended along racial lines. According to 9 Investigates' numbers, two cases are still pending in the courts. However, seven white defendants have either pleaded guilty or been convicted, one black defendant pleaded to lesser charges and a Hispanic defendant was found guilty.
"It seems in the cases that did use self-defense that race didn't have anything to do with it, that gender didn't have anything to do with it," said University of Central Florida Criminal Justice professor Dr. Kareem Jordan. "It really did boil down to, for the most part, that this person really did feel their life was in danger."
The first recorded case in which the immunity statute that has become known as "stand your ground" came into play in central Florida was in March 2006 in Volusia County.
On March 9, 2006, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office responded to the 600 block of Belltower Avenue in Deltona following reports of gunshots and a person lying in the roadway. The shooter, Luis Perez, was one of the people to call 911, telling the dispatcher that he just shot someone.
The victim, Roberto Legarreta, had been shot several times and died at a hospital.
Perez was providing transportation to his friend, Ramon Jimenez, so Jimenez, who lives in New York, could pick up his daughters for a visitation. As the girls were being loaded in the car, Legarreta emerged from the house and yelled something, and Perez yelled back.
According to the Sheriff's Office, Legarreta was armed with a machete and began to run at the car. In what he called a panic, Perez could not get the keys and gearshift to work before Legarreta got to the car. According to several witnesses, Perez fired multiple shots from within the car and then drove away from the scene.
Based on evidence and witness statements, Volusia County sheriff's investigator Greg Seymour released Perez from custody. Less than six weeks after the shooting, on April 19, 2006, Seymour received written notification from the Office of the State Attorney that the incident had been deemed as a justifiable use of force.
"Every case is going to have different facts. You'll never have the same facts twice," said Orlando attorney Neal McShane. "If the prosecutor decides there are not enough facts (to grant immunity under the self-defense statute), then they will go ahead and prosecute you, and then you can raise it as a defense."
In 17 of the 31 cases reviewed by Eyewitness News, the defendant was either never charged or was granted immunity by the state prosecutor. With five cases never prosecuted, Marion County had the most, with Fifth Circuit Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway writing in one case, "I am convinced that under the current state of the law this defendant would be found to have immunity from prosecution for this shooting."
"It's a relatively new statute, and it has thrown a monkey wrench into prosecutions," said McShane.
Because the law has only been applied a few dozen times, many prosecutors are cautious about applying the law, instead handing the decision over a grand jury.
On April 1, 2006, Polk County resident Michael Brady shot and killed Justin Boyette, a friend of his neighbor. Brady said Boyette came onto his property and attempted to attack him.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office investigated the case, turning its findings over to the State Attorney's Office 10th Judicial Circuit. Rather than grant immunity, the office presented charges to a grand jury and, after deliberations, the grand jury issued a "no true bill" on the case, essentially clearing Brady in the shooting.
Critics of the law said the high rate of suspects avoiding prison time points to a flaw inherent with the system.
"The issue that I am seeing is that it allows discretion by the average
person," said Jordon. "It does allow for too much discretion."