Vigilante or Self-Defense?

By Judy Berman

Let’s say you meet a stranger in a dark alley. Someone is killed. The survivor claims self-defense. There are no witnesses. Only one side of this story is available because the other person is dead.

That image of the vigilante who takes the law into his own hands was popularized in Hollywood. Think: Charles Bronson (as Paul Kersey) when he avenged his wife’s death in “Death Wish” (1974). Many cheered him on when he sought revenge.

But two recent cases in Florida, that appear to have taken the same path, ended in the deaths of two young men under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

Make no mistake. This is not about anyone’s right to “bear arms” and protect themselves. This is about rights guaranteed to U.S.citizens in the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Rights such as the right to a fair trial “decided by a jury” of your peers. There’s not much chance of that happening if someone apparently takes justice into his own hands.

“The 2005 law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat when attacked, leading critics to say the statue fosters vigilante justice and allows criminals to get away with murder on a claim of self-defense,” according to The Miami Herald.

Florida Statute 776.013 (3), known as the “stand your ground” law, allows people to use deadly force if they think their life is in danger, or other lives are in jeopardy.

  • On Feb. 26th, an unarmed 17-year-old in Sanford, near Orlando, Trayvon Martin, was gunned down by 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. Martin was returning to his parents’ home after going to a convenience store to buy Skittles and ice tea. Zimmerman told dispatchers that Martin looked “suspicious.”
  • On Wednesday, March 21st, Miami-Dade Judge Beth Bloom tossed out a case against Greyston Garcia, who was charged with second-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of Pedro Roteta. 26, on Jan. 25th. “Police said Roteta was stealing Garcia’s truck radio.” Garcia chased Roteta more than a block before the fatal attack. Roteta had a pocket knife, but it was unopened and in his pocket, according to The Miami Herald.

In the Martin case, Zimmerman ignored police advice not to confront the teen. He followed Treyvon Martin in his sport utility vehicle and then on foot. The two allegedly got into a fight. The devastating outcome has been the subject of protests and national news coverage.

The Miami-Dade judge’s decision on Garcia angered Miami police Sgt. Ervens Ford, who supervised the case. The Miami Herald quotes Ford as saying the decision was a “travesty of justice. How can it be Stand Your Ground? It’s on (surveillance) video! You can see him stabbing the victim … “

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office may appeal the judge’s ruling.

The Miami Herald reports that “in the first five years the law was in effect, it was invoked 93 times. In the last year and half, it has been invoked at least an additional 37 times. ‘Justifiable homicides’ reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have increased threefold since the law went into effect.”

The state of Florida should take action now to re-examine the Stand Your Ground law. What happened to Trayvon Martin … and to Pedro Roteta … could have happened to anyone’s child. This law is a matter of concern for all citizens who want safe passage on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

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UPDATE: On June 26, 2012, Greyston Garcia, 26, was killed in Liberty City, Fla. shortly after he left his job at a convenience store. “Investigators suspect the shooting was between two rival gangs and Garcia was an innocent victim.” CBS Miami reported. http://miami.cbslocal.com/2012/06/27/police-seek-gunmen-motive-in-double-murder-in-liberty-city/

UPDATE: On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin. Here is the link to USA Today’s story: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/13/george-zimmerman-found-not-guilty/2514163/

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* Main photo of Charles Bronson taken in 1973. In 1974, he starred in the vigilante film, “Death Wish” http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bronson_1973.jpg           Attribution: Fish Cop at en.wikipedia

* Editorial cartoon: courtesy of Jeff Parker, Florida Today 

* Miami judge decides fatal stabbing was self-defense, a news article in The Miami Herald. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/21/2706789_miami-judge-stabbing-in-the-back.html

* Number of “stand your ground” cases rises as legislators rethink law, a news article in The Miami Herald. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/22/2708767_number-of-stand-your-ground-cases.html

* The Bill of Rights http://www.ushistory.org/documents/amendments.htm