Saturday, 06 May 2023 07:09

No Retreat: The Dangers of Stand Your Ground

At a rally in 2012, protesters gathered in front of the office of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to ask him to retract his support for Florida’s stand your ground gun law. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In a string of recent shootings, young victims have been killed or seriously injured over innocent mistakes. What is justice in the age of stand your ground laws?

A string of recent shootings has captured the nation’s attention, with young victims being shot over simple, innocent mistakes. And while the accused assailants have been arrested, in some cases, prosecuting them could be complicated. That’s because of stand your ground laws, which allow people to use deadly force in self-defense – even if they could have safely retreated. Currently, 38 states have such laws.

Reveal reporter Jonathan Jones talks with Byron Castillo, a maintenance worker in North Carolina who was shot in the chest after mistakenly trying to get into the wrong apartment for a repair. While Castillo wound up out of work and deep in debt, police and prosecutors declined to pursue charges against the shooter, who said he was afraid someone was trying to break into his apartment. Researchers have found that states that enacted stand your ground laws have seen an increase in homicides – one study estimated that roughly 700 more people die in the U.S. every year because of stand your ground laws.

Opponents of stand your ground laws call them by a different name: “kill at will” laws. Jones speaks to lawmakers like Stephanie Howse, who fought against stand your ground legislation as an Ohio state representative, saying such laws put Black people’s lives at risk. Howse and other Democratic lawmakers faced off against Republican politicians, backed by pro-gun lobbyists, intent on passing a stand your ground bill despite widespread opposition from civil rights groups and law enforcement.

Modern-day stand your ground laws started in Florida. Reveal reporter Nadia Hamdan explores a 2011 road rage incident that wound up leading to an expansion of the law. She looks at how one case led Florida lawmakers, backed by the National Rifle Association, to enact a law that spells out that prosecutors, not defendants, have the burden of proof when claiming someone was not acting in self-defense when committing an act of violence against another individual.

This episode originally aired in July 2022.

Dig Deeper

Read: Stand Your Ground Laws Are Proliferating. And More People Are Dying.

Read: The Stand Your Ground Project

Read: Expansions to the Castle Doctrine

Read: ABA National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws

Watch: Watch Ohio state Rep. Stephanie Howse get cut off during ‘stand your ground’ debate

Credits

Reporters and producers: Jonathan Jones and Nadia Hamdan | Editors: Queena Kim and Brett Myers, with help from Nina Martin and Maryam Saleh | Additional research and reporting: Decca Muldowney | Production help: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Laura Pellicer | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Steven Rascón and Kathryn Styer Martinez | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers | Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. A few weeks ago, a parent asked their teenage son, Ralph, for a favor: Could you please pick up your brothers who are playing at a friend’s house at Northeast 115th Terrace in Kansas City, Missouri. But Ralph Yarl went to the wrong address, Northeast 115th Street, just one block away.
Newscaster: 16 year old Ralph Yarl was shot in the head when he went to the wrong address to pick up his younger brothers.
Authorities say an 84-year-old white man shot the Black teenager Thursday night.
Newscaster: A criminal complaint says the accused shooter did not speak to the teen before allegedly shooting him through a glass door.
Al Letson: Two days later, in rural New York, a 20-year-old woman named Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed after she drove up the wrong driveway with friends.
Andrew Gillis: It’s my understanding that my daughter and her friends made the mistake of pulling in his driveway, realized it, turned around, and he fired at them as they were leaving the driveway.
Al Letson: Then three days after that, on April 18th, in Elgin, Texas, a group of cheerleaders were leaving practice, and by mistake, one of them got into the wrong car.
Newscaster: High school cheerleader, Payton Washington, the latest victim after a stranger opened fire on her and three friends in the parking lot of a grocery store.
Al Letson: This string of shootings captured the nation’s attention.
Newscaster: This is a scenario suddenly making headlines across the country.
Newscaster: This is a very disturbing series of shootings.
Newscaster: Seemingly innocent moments of confusion have led to bloodshed.
You knock on the wrong door or flip to the wrong address, and then, before you know it, bullets are flying.
Al Letson: In each of the cases I just mentioned, the accused shooters have been arrested, but prosecuting them could be complicated. That’s because throughout much of the country, there are laws that allow people to use deadly force in public places if they say they were in fear for their lives, even if they could have safely retreated.
Florida passed the nation’s first Stand Your Ground law in 2005. That statute was put under national spotlight in 2012 after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Many called upon lawmakers to repeal or reform the law, but that didn’t happen. In fact, since that time, Stand Your Ground laws have expanded by nearly 60%. Today, three quarters of the country, 38 states, have some sort of policy in place, and as those laws have increased, so has the body count.
Reveal’s Jonathan Jones investigates.
Jonathan Jones: For hundreds of years, self-defense laws basically boiled down to this: If threatened, you had a duty to do whatever you could to escape before using deadly force. The one exception to this duty to retreat was the castle doctrine, based on the old adage, a man’s home is this castle. Stand Your Ground laws expand the castle doctrine to places outside the home, to cars, to hallways, and to any place you have the legal right to be. Essentially, the world is your castle, and if you feel threatened for your life, you can use deadly force to defend yourself, even if it’s possible to safely retreat.
Byron Castillo: The law is messed up.
Jonathan Jones: When Byron Castillo’s morning alarm went off, he was in bed with his wife in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Byron Castillo: I remember that morning, it was really cold.
Jonathan Jones: It’s 36 degrees outside. It’s late January in 2020, and Byron doesn’t want to get up.
Byron Castillo: You know, one of those days that you don’t want to do nothing.
Jonathan Jones: Byron grew up in Los Angeles.
Byron Castillo: And then I moved here to North Carolina about 25 years ago.
Jonathan Jones: He says he wanted to get away from the gang violence in LA. He wanted his wife and kid to have a safer life. In North Carolina, he began working as a maintenance person, and he got a job at the Chatham Wood Apartments. It’s in High Point, about 20 miles southeast of Winston-Salem.
Byron Castillo: I was getting paid by job. It was about $300 just to repair the ceiling.
Jonathan Jones: And on that cold January morning two and a half years ago, Byron gets to the apartment complex around 8:00 AM. He walks up the stairs to the second floor. He’s got his ladder and paintbrushes and tools, and then he tries a key the apartment manager gave him, but it doesn’t work.
Byron Castillo: So I knock on the door, then I say, “Maintenance. Maintenance.”
Jonathan Jones: No one answers, and so he knocks again.
Byron Castillo: It was just a matter of seconds when someone opened the door, and boom.
Jonathan Jones: Byron sees a gun go off. The bullet hits him in the chest. He says he stumbles backwards and falls to one knee and looks up at the guy.
Byron Castillo: I said, “Man, I was just coming to do repairs in your apartment and you just shot me like this?”
Jonathan Jones: Byron’s bleeding a lot, but he thinks, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’
Byron Castillo: I said, if I stay here, this guy is going to shoot me again.
Jonathan Jones: Somehow, he manages to get to his truck and drives to the maintenance office. And the staff call the police.
Byron Castillo: And it was a guy there from maintenance. I grabbed his hand and I said, “Man, please don’t let me go,” because I was feeling short of breath. And I said, “Please don’t let me go, man. Please, please, Lord, just let me live.”
Jonathan Jones: When Byron wakes up out of a coma seven days later, he finds out the bullet had missed his heart by a hair. He also finds out that the manager texted him the wrong apartment number. He was supposed to be doing work on the unit below.
Byron Castillo: The officer show up at the hospital and he said, “Well, we’re sorry for what happened.”
Jonathan Jones: Byron asks the police officer, is the shooter in jail?
Byron Castillo: And he said, “No.” And I said, “Why?” And he said that he was feeling threat by me, and he’s having his rights to shoot me because he was feeling threat.
Jonathan Jones: The shooter told police that he was afraid someone was trying to break into his apartment, so he opened the door and fired. Because North Carolina is a Stand Your Ground state with a castle doctrine, the shooter had no duty to retreat. As a result, no charges would be filed.
Byron couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He was lucky to survive, but he was out of work for six months, relied on handouts from friends to pay his bills and mortgage, and says he racked up more than $100,000 in medical bills.
Byron Castillo: I got shot, and this guy shot me, and the only thing you can say is, “I’m sorry.” Sorry is not going to pay my bills, because they cut my stomach and they took the spleen off, and all those things that they did at the hospital.
Jonathan Jones: Byron says the shooter could have made other decisions, rather than use his gun. There was no imminent threat, no attack in progress, no gun or shots fired. Nothing to suggest Byron was in any way dangerous. Couldn’t the shooter have yelled, “Go away,” or just not opened the door? Or he could have picked up the phone to call 911.
Byron Castillo: He could have called the police. Yes, yes.
Jonathan Jones: The High Point police department and the district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case, so he asked Steven Jansen, a longtime prosecutor, for his thoughts.
Steven Jansen: It’s troubling to me, because one, the individual never enters the house, so I would be concerned right there.
Jonathan Jones: Steven is a former director of the National District Attorney’s Association, the largest organization of prosecutors in the United States, and in 2007 he co-authored one of the first studies on Stand Your Ground Laws. He says, before these laws were enacted, a prosecutor might have spent a month looking into a case like Byron’s. They might have asked if Byron wasn’t breaking into the house…
Steven Jansen: Was the shooter, then, really in grave danger or bodily harm? You know, this individual, I would argue, reasonably could have picked up the phone, called 911, called the police out to the scene.
Jonathan Jones: Steven says a prosecutor would’ve looked at the time of day, and that the incident happened during normal working hours, not in the middle of the night. Byron had also identified himself several times as a maintenance worker, and he was also carrying tools.
Steven Jansen: But there’s a very quick decision made, and he grabs his gun and uses it, and now he’s claiming self-defense. You try to look at what would a reasonable person have done.
Jonathan Jones: This is exactly the type of scenario Steven worried would happen after Stand Your Ground laws were first passed.
Steven Jansen: I had some concerns. Were these laws really necessary, or are they going to have an adverse effect on the criminal justice system?
Jonathan Jones: His real worry was that it would make it much easier to get away with murder.
Steven Jansen: I think these statutes complicate police investigations. They have a huge impact on prosecutorial discretion on whether or not to charge a case.
Jonathan Jones: Steven’s 2007 study brought together police, prosecutors, academics, and public health experts. It predicted that Stand Your Ground laws would have a profound impact on the justice system and make it much harder to hold people accountable for unjustified killings, and ominously, their report also predicted that Florida’s new Stand Your Ground law might allow people to use deadly force in situations that might otherwise be considered racial profiling or vigilantism.
And then, five years after the report was released, one shooting prompted a national conversation about Stand Your Ground laws.
Newscaster: Now to the Trayvon Martin case.
Newscaster: After the shooting…
The guy had his hands in the air, saying, “The gun’s on the ground. I shot this guy in self-defense.”
Protestor: I am Trayvon Martin.
Protestors: I am Trayvon Martin.
Protestor: I am Trayvon Martin.
Protestors: I am Trayvon Martin.
Jonathan Jones: And since Trayvon Martin, controversial killings and defenses invoking Stand Your Ground haven’t stopped.
Newscaster: So, we’re going to begin with big developments in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial. Travis McMichael and two other white men charged with murdering Arbery have claimed self-defense.
Kyle Rittenhouse trembled as he listened to the verdict and then collapsed onto the floor of the courtroom in Kenosha, Wisconsin today. The jury found him not guilty in all five counts, including first degree…
Jonathan Jones: The first Stand Your Ground state, Florida is also one of the places where we know the most, because so much research has been done there. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing, the Tampa Bay Times looked at more than 200 Stand Your Ground cases. It found nearly 70% of people who claim Stand Your Ground went free. Most of those cases involved situations where retreat was possible, and almost two thirds of people killed were unarmed.
Over the years, there have been at least nine major studies on Stand Your Ground laws, including one released in February, 2022, around the 10th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death. Michelle Degli Esposti, at the University of Oxford, is one of the co-authors.
Michelle Degli …: Florida had a big increase. So, you can see Alabama was 27%; Louisiana, 20%; Missouri, 25%.
Jonathan Jones: 25% more deaths after Stand Your Ground laws were enacted. Michelle’s team found these kinds of big double-digit jumps mostly in the South. Some states, like Pennsylvania, didn’t see increases in homicides after enacting Stand Your Ground, but there was no evidence that these laws led to a decrease in homicides anywhere. In fact, on average…
Michelle Degli …: We found that the enactment of Stand Your Ground laws led to an 8-10% increase in homicide across the US.
Jonathan Jones: 8-10% more homicides after states enacted Stand Your Ground.
Michelle Degli …: Okay, 8-10% increase in homicide rates. What does that mean in terms of people?
Jonathan Jones: Michelle and her colleagues at Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania did the math. They estimate roughly 700 more people die in the US every year because of Stand Your Ground laws. That’s more than the total annual homicides in most European countries. Michelle says at this point, the research done since these laws were adopted is beginning to add up.
Michelle Degli …: What is important is that, not just our study, but now it’s an accumulation of the body of evidence, that Stand Your Ground laws endanger public safety, and by enacting these laws, you are enhancing, reinforcing, encouraging the use of deadly force where it wasn’t needed, and increasing the number of people dying by homicide.
Jonathan Jones: To many prosecutors and academics like Michelle, Stand Your Ground laws were a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Self-defense laws have always allowed people to protect themselves and to use deadly force if they couldn’t get away. But now, with Stand Your Ground, they don’t even have to try, because it removes the duty to retreat.
Michelle Degli …: It kind of takes away the onus of the individual to remove themselves from a situation that could be dangerous, and giving them the legal right to immediately use lethal force.
Jonathan Jones: When lawmakers speak about the need for Stand Your Ground, they often talk about a stranger with a gun or a knife attacking you and your family. But I’ve looked at about 150 Stand Your Ground cases going back a decade across the country, and in reality, many of the circumstances look nothing like that. For example, is it reasonable to kill someone because of a traffic altercation?
Newscaster: No charges have been filed after a deadly apparent road rage shooting.
Newscaster: Investigators are still trying to put the pieces together, but they say it involved two drivers who didn’t know each other.
Jonathan Jones: Or to kill your unarmed roommate if you get into a fight because he refuses to leave your room.
Newscaster: A man accused of shooting and killing his roommate during a disagreement at their west side home will spend tonight out of jail.
Jonathan Jones: Is it reasonable to kill an unarmed man in a movie theater after he throws popcorn at you?
Newscaster: Not guilty in all charges, Curtis Reeves acquitted of the murder of Chad Olson after shooting him inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater.
Jonathan Jones: And what about killing an unarmed man experiencing homelessness and mental health issues if he approaches you to ask for money?
Newscaster: The homeless man was shot to death at a busy downtown corner. Now there are questions as to why a grand jury hasn’t filed any charges against the person who fired that fatal shot.
Jonathan Jones: And fundamentally, is it ever reasonable to kill another person unless it’s absolutely necessary?
Al Letson: And of course, behind all of this is race. When we come back, we’ll travel to Ohio to examine Republican efforts to push through a Stand Your Ground law, despite widespread opposition from Black lawmakers in the state, lawmakers who argue on the floor of the State House that Black residents are already feared and targeted because of the color of their skin.
Rep. Stephanie …: Do you hear what I’m saying? I’ve been in these floors, where I hear people tell me, “You know people scared of you.”
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Already this year, there have been more than 175 mass shootings across the country, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That’s an average of more than one a day. This manmade disaster touches down in one community after the next, leaving chaos and destruction. That’s what happened in Dayton, Ohio back in 2019.
911 Operator: 911. What’s the address of the emergency?
911 Caller: We’re in downtown… We’re on 5th Street in Dayton, Ohio.
911 Operator: Okay, what’s going on there?
911 Caller: There were shots fired. There was people hurt.
Al Letson: The shooter fired 41 rounds into a crowd. Nine people were gunned down in less than 30 seconds and another 27 were injured. The attack occurred just 13 hours after another mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, and the back-to-back killings once again renewed calls for gun control legislation. At a memorial in Dayton, Ohio, Republican governor Mike DeWine addressed mourners. As he spoke, the crowd began shouting over him to do something.
Mike DeWine: We care very, very deeply about you.
Protestors: Do something!
Mike DeWine: We will do everything that we can…
Protestors: Do something!
Mike DeWine: Everything that we can to tell you that we care.
Protestors: Do something!
Al Letson: Two days later the governor tried to do something, calling on Ohio lawmakers to come together to enact modest common sense gun restrictions. Reveal’s Jonathan Jones has been looking into what Ohio’s legislature did next.
Jonathan Jones: Two and a half months after that mass shooting in Dayton, lawmakers introduced a new gun bill. But instead of gun restrictions, Republican lawmakers Ron Hood and Candice Keller introduced an expansion of gun rights, a Stand Your Ground wall removing the duty to retreat.
Candice Keller: We Introduced this bill for very simple reasons. First, for the safety of Ohio citizens. Secondly, to provide protections for those who are lawfully exercising their Second Amendment rights while defending themselves.
Jonathan Jones: 15 people, including Representative Keller, spoke in support of the bill. More than 120 witnesses testified against it, and the legislation died in committee. But this wasn’t the first time GOP lawmakers have proposed a Stand Your Ground bill in Ohio.
Republicans first introduced Stand Your Ground six years earlier, in June, 2013, right around the time George Zimmerman went on trial for killing Trayvon Martin. The NAACP spoke out against the Ohio proposal. Opponents called it a Kill At Will bill, and it failed to pass the Senate. In 2017, Republican lawmakers tried two more times to push forward Stand Your Ground laws. Neither passed. And then, during another failed attempt in 2018, a debate about the racial implications of the law got heated.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: The chair recognizes Representative Howse.
Rep. Stephanie …: Permission to speak to the bill.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: Permission granted.
Jonathan Jones: On the floor of the Ohio State House, Representative Stephanie Howse, a then-Democratic lawmaker from Cleveland, tells colleagues that Stand Your Ground would put Black Ohioans at risk.
Rep. Stephanie …: Why do people of color continue to say this? When your presence, when your being, your Blackness causes fear? Do you hear what I’m saying? I’ve been in these floors, where I hear people tell me, “You know people scared of you.” It’s people I have never interacted with.
Jonathan Jones: She says there’s a reason why Black lawmakers like her are speaking out, because in America, black people are all too often seen as a threat.
Rep. Stephanie …: This is a bad idea for people that look like me.
Jonathan Jones: Then Representative Howse points out the demographics of the bill’s sponsors.
Rep. Stephanie …: And I always go back to the foundation. Who are you representing?
Jonathan Jones: She notes that many of them come from districts that are overwhelmingly white.
Rep. Stephanie …: Representative LaTourette, House District 76, 96.2% white, 1.5% African-Americans and Black. Representative Terry Johnson, 94.9% white constituents, 2.4% Black constituents. For the 32-
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: Will the lady please…
Jonathan Jones: And this is where it gets ugly.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: Direct her marks towards the bill and keep personalities out of it?
Jonathan Jones: House Speaker Ryan Smith bangs his gavel and interrupts, asking Representative Howse to keep personalities out of it.
Rep. Stephanie …: I’m not… Again, excuse me, clarification to the Speaker. These are the sponsors. We’re talking about constituencies and the impact of this legislation on constituencies-
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: And I’m asking you to keep the personalities away from this.
Rep. Stephanie …: I’m not… Again, this is the identification of, again, the sponsors and the 32 co-sponsors-
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: Please don’t.
Rep. Stephanie …: And the constituencies who, again, the breakdown of Ohioans who are being represented, and again, I think that is fair to bring that up in legislation that will have desperate impacts on people of color. But again, when you don’t consider color, it’s easy to throw it away to the side, and we cannot talk about the conversation that we had, right? Or in this body, you talked about that race really wasn’t important and we don’t have a problem with race.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: You’re out of order.
Rep. Stephanie …: You know, so again-
Jonathan Jones: Speaker Smith slams his gavel and cuts off her mic. Then he directs the sergeant at arms to physically remove Representative Howse. But several lawmakers stand in front of her, making a human wall to protect her.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: This is, the question is, shall the bill pass as amended? The House will prepare and proceed to vote.
Jonathan Jones: With representative Howse’s microphone cut off, the Speaker opens the vote.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: The lady will take her seat and refrain from being disruptive. Please.
Rep. Stephanie …: You want to… You don’t want to have a conversation about race, Speaker Smith? Again?
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: The lady will refrain, please.
Rep. Stephanie …: Who represents 1.4%, again, African Americans. But you want to just be not having a conversation about race.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: Have all members now voted? That was 64 affirmative votes and 26 negative votes. The bill is hereby passed in entirety.
Jonathan Jones: The 2018 Stand Your Ground bill eventually failed after then Governor John Kasik threatened to veto it, but to Representative Howse, the message from Republicans was clear: Pro-gun lawmakers were intent on passing a Stand Your Ground law, even if doing it meant silencing the voices of Black lawmakers.
Rep. Stephanie …: He cut off my mic. And I was like, oh, no, you’re not going to silence me.
Jonathan Jones: The other message she took from the incident was that force, like calling on the sergeant at arms to remove her, happens so quickly. To Representative Howse and other Black lawmakers, this was exactly the kind of thing that too often happens when Black people stand up to authority.
Rep. Stephanie …: What happens when the cameras aren’t on, when it’s two people, and one person ends up not being here anymore, and you only have one person to tell the story? That’s what happens, literally, because emotions run high. Most people, unfortunately, think that Blackness is a threat. And you can easily say, “I fear it for my life.”
Jonathan Jones: Why was there such this push to get this law passed in Ohio?
Rep. Stephanie …: Because again, I do think there are a lot of people who are very afraid of the browning of America. I mean, let’s just be for real. Like, that is a lot of white men’s fear in particular.
Jonathan Jones: Studies show that self-defense laws are full of racial bias. Research by the Urban Institute found that White-on-Black homicides are 10 times more likely to be ruled justified than Black-on-white, and the gap is even larger in Stand Your Ground states. All in all, in Ohio, Republican lawmakers tried to pass a Stand Your Ground law nine different times.
Spkr. Ryan Smit…: Chair recognizes representative Koehler.
Jonathan Jones: The final attempt came just before midnight on December 17th, 2020.
Rep. Kyle Koehl…: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Move to amend AM 133 3883.
Jonathan Jones: When Republican Kyle Koehler inserted the Stand Your Ground language into another unrelated bill, it was a legislative maneuver that, depending on how you look at it, was either a clever strategy or an unconstitutional overreach.
Rep. Kyle Koehl…: Amendment 3883 does one simple thing: It extends the right to law-abiding citizens to defend themselves anywhere they’re illegally allowed to be, as long as they’re not the original aggressor in a situation they are involved with.
Jonathan Jones: Democrats, including Jeff Crossman, stood up to oppose the amendment.
Rep. Jeff Cross…: This is not the legislation the people of Ohio called for when they shouted for us to “do something” after last year’s shooting in Dayton.
Jonathan Jones: Several Black female lawmakers also spoke up against the last minute move to insert the language into the bill, including Representative Howse.
Rep. Stephanie …: When it comes to this amendment, Black people are going to die disproportionately than white people. And if you feel a certain type of way by me calling out Black people, white people, ask yourself why? Ask these questions. This is not funny. It is not cute. Most of y’all don’t even represent enough Black people to even have a informed decision. You know what I’m saying? To make a decision. And then when people give you facts, facts, it’s like, “We don’t care, because as long as the NRA happening, I’m good.” It ain’t right.
Jonathan Jones: That night, the bill passed along party lines, with not a single Democrat voting in favor. Afterward, the NAACP and several Democratic lawmakers sued to strike down the law. That lawsuit is pending.
I asked Representative Koehler, who inserted the Stand Your Ground language into the bill, what he would say to those who believe it will hurt people of color.
Rep. Kyle Koehl…: The fact of the matter is, we do still have racial issues in this country. This bill is not trying to fix that. It’s not trying to make it worse. It is, in fact, just trying to deal with the fact that people are getting killed and we need to do everything we can to allow people to not only protect themselves, but also produce good laws that allow everyone to exist in this country without being targeted for any, for some reason, especially for race.
Jonathan Jones: This bill has been controversial, it’s come up several times. Why not just propose it as its own, so that you could have a robust debate before doing it? Why not just have that final, robust debate?
Rep. Kyle Koehl…: The fact of the matter is, when a Senate bill comes over to the House, we can do anything we want with it, and they can’t control us. The amendment that I put into the bill is the exact same language that I was carrying and had multiple hearings in the House. So when it comes to whether the bill had hearings, it definitely did.
Jonathan Jones: There was hope that Governor DeWine might veto the bill, based on his calls for comprehensive gun safety measures after the Dayton shooting. Instead, when this bill got to his desk, he signed it. It turns out, years earlier, he had promised the gun lobby in writing that he’d pass Stand Your Ground.
Al Letson: That’s reveal’s Jonathan Jones. Coming up, we go to Florida, where more than a decade after passing Stand Your Ground, legislators expanded it even further. Critics say these new changes to the law make it even easier to claim self-defense and get away with murder.
David LaBahn: Why should you be immune when you take another person’s life?
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Multiple times in recent weeks, someone has gotten lost or made a mistake and knocked on the wrong door, or driven up the wrong driveway, and without warning, they’ve been met with gunfire. This recent spate of shootings has renewed attention on Stand Your Ground laws. That’s what gun advocates call them, anyway. Critics call them shoot first laws, as in shoot first, ask questions later.
Most of the country now has some form of Stand Your Ground law on the books, and in some places, lawmakers have begun to expand them even further. Today, we’re revisiting the show we first brought you last year. We want to close out by looking back at my home state, Florida. It was the first to pass the Stand Your Ground law back in 2005, and in recent years, lawmakers have passed brand new legislation that makes it even harder to prosecute people who kill and then claim self-defense.
Reveal’s Nadia Hamdan traces the roots of this new law back more than a decade, to one family’s Florida vacation.
Nadia Hamdan: It all started on a trip to the happiest place on earth. It’s 2011. Ronald Bretherick and his family are visiting South Florida from their home state of Indiana. It’s the holidays, and they just spent Christmas with relatives, but before heading back home, they decide to see a little more of Florida, so they head up to Orlando. They’re on the freeway, driving to, you guessed it, Disney World.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: This was a six lane divided highway, which at that point in time, being the holiday season, was extremely heavy with traffic.
Nadia Hamdan: This is Ron’s former sister-in-law, Dawn Drellos-Thompson. The Bretherick family did not want to be interviewed for this story, but confirms everything Dawn is about to tell us.
Ron is driving in his car with his wife, adult son and teenage daughter. They’re on the highway when Ron sees a Cadillac Escalade in his rear view mirror. He noticed the SUV was barreling down on drivers, swerving in and out of lanes.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: We saw him kind of coming, but he didn’t expect him to suddenly veer into his lane and then push him off.
Nadia Hamdan: That’s when Dawn says that Ron honks his horn to let the guy know, hey, watch out.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: The family didn’t think anything more of it, and they thought, okay, he’s on his way.
Nadia Hamdan: But then the Escalade appears again.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: And this time, swerved into their lane and stopped dead.
Nadia Hamdan: Ron slams his brakes. There they, are stopped in the middle of a busy freeway. Cars are flying by.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: It’s done the family.
Nadia Hamdan: The man in the Escalade is Derek Dunning. We reached out to him for comment, but he never got back to us. But court documents show, after stopping in front of the Brethericks, he gets out of his car and walks towards them.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: My brother-in-law sees Mr. Dunning approaching their car, and he says to my sister, “Could you please get the gun out of the glove compartment? There’s something not right here.”
Nadia Hamdan: She hands the gun to Ron. He’s licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: My brother-in-law holds it up in the window and waves his hand like, please go away, leave my family alone. Never takes the gun out of the holster
Nadia Hamdan: And it seems to work.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: Mr. Dunning does see that gun and he returns back to his car. At that point though, it appears to the family he’s backing the car up.
Nadia Hamdan: Dawn says that’s when her sister and niece run for safety to the side of the road, dodging cars on the busy highway. But Ron, he’s in his sixties, disabled. He isn’t able to get out of the car so easily.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: So, my nephew doesn’t want to abandon him.
Nadia Hamdan: Her nephew is Ron’s son, Jared Bretherick, and he’s the reason we’re telling this story. Jared decides to take the gun, get out of the car and stand by the driver’s side door near his dad. Jared is also licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: Jared’s desire is not to shoot. He points the gun towards the tires of Mr. Dunning’s vehicle, because really, he’s just worried about the car backing up and ramming them.
Nadia Hamdan: Everyone is on the phone with 911 by now. Transcripts of those calls, along with court documents, paint a picture of a volatile and confusing situation. With his gun pointed at the Escalade, Jared tells Dunning to move his truck or he’ll be shot. The 911 transcript showed Jared was worried Dunning may have a gun, but in the Escalade, Dunning is on the phone with 911, too. He tells the operator that he’s afraid to move because he worries Jared will shoot. Minutes are ticking by. That’s when Jared’s dad tells the dispatcher, if police don’t get there soon they’re going to, quote, “Cap this son of a…”
Dawn Drellos-Th…: It is a difficult statement to hear, for sure, on the 911 call. But when you’re in the heat of the moment and you’re not sure why this guy who has just seen your gun is not leaving, what’s going through your mind right now?
Nadia Hamdan: Police arrive on the scene and question everyone, the Brethericks, Dunning and eyewitnesses. They also searched Dunning’s car. No gun. Jared’s arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: Jared, of all people, who’s just a very good young man.
Nadia Hamdan: Jared had no criminal record. Now, if convicted, he would face a minimum of three years in prison.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: That’s a very tough pill to swallow.
Nadia Hamdan: Dawn is one of the only lawyers in the family. That’s how she got involved in all this. The Brethericks wanted her help.
And remind me again, what type of lawyer are you?
Dawn Drellos-Th…: I’m an estate planning attorney. Trust and estates. I mean, I never my wildest dreams…
Nadia Hamdan: Together, Dawn and the Brethericks decide to fight.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: We just felt that under the circumstances, how could anybody reasonable believe that this family did not have a right to defend themselves?
Nadia Hamdan: They didn’t know it then, but this would be a four-year journey that would take Jared’s case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, and it would help redefine hundreds of years of self-defense law, particularly when it comes to the burden of proof.
Dawn starts looking for criminal defense attorneys who can represent Jared, and she finds Eric Friday, a lawyer with the gun rights group Florida Carry. It has close ties to the National Rifle Association. Dawn tells him about Jared, and he’s eager to take the case.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: Right away, Attorney Friday said, “We need to file for a Stand Your Ground hearing.”
Nadia Hamdan: So, that’s what they do. They schedule a pretrial hearing to try and prove to a judge that Jared was in fear for his life, so he should have immunity from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. But the judge doesn’t agree, because even though Derek Dunning was threatening when he got out of his Escalade on that busy highway, he then got back inside, which the court saw as a retreat. So, the judge ruled that when Jared pointed the gun, he wasn’t being reasonable, because the threat was no longer imminent. He’d have to stand trial.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: The judge at that point didn’t feel that Jared had carried the burden, and issued a ruling against Jared.
Nadia Hamdan: For centuries, the burden of proof in self-defense cases has been on the person who claims self-defense. Like, if you shoot somebody, you have to prove that you are facing an imminent threat to your life and that you acted reasonably. But Stand Your Ground laws throw the burden of proof into question, or at least Jared’s attorneys thought so.
Dawn Drellos-Th…: And I think that they had always been looking for a case with the right factual scenario, more or less, that would appeal to a court.
Eric Friday: Bretherick’s case was the first case to actually raise the question, who has the burden of proof?
Nadia Hamdan: That’s Jared’s attorney, Eric Friday. He argues that the burden of proof never should have been on Jared. Instead, he claims that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was meant to put the entire burden on prosecutors. And so, if prosecutors really didn’t think Jared was in fear for his life…
Eric Friday: Sit there and let the state prove it.
Nadia Hamdan: When the Florida legislature passed Stand Your Ground in 2005, the law gave defendants immunity from prosecution, but it didn’t really explain how people get it. So, the courts worked out a process. Defendants like Jared would go to pretrial hearings to argue that they deserve immunity. But Eric Friday says that if you have to prove you deserve immunity, it’s not really immunity. As far as he sees it, Jared was the victim, and victims shouldn’t be treated like suspects.
Eric Friday: May it please the court, Eric Friday, on behalf of the appellant, Jared Bretherick, I’d like to reserve five minutes for rebuttal.
Nadia Hamdan: And he took this argument to the Florida Supreme Court.
Eric Friday: Your honors, this case called for, or this statute called for a new rule of procedure. It called for a new rule for the courts to say, to give a way to handle these cases in a way that comports with the legislative intent, which was to grant additional protections to citizens who were attacked where they have a right to be.
Nadia Hamdan: Eric tells the court the same thing he told me: You shouldn’t have to prove you deserve immunity, you should just get it. But quickly, then-Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente pushes back.
Justice Barbara…: I see nothing in the legislation that indicates that is the standard. I see nothing in any other state that has ever gone that way. And so, I’m trying to see where, other than sort of pulling it out of the stratosphere, we would come up with that additional burden.
Nadia Hamdan: The attorney representing the state, Kristen Davenport, argues just because Jared didn’t get immunity at his pretrial hearing doesn’t mean he’s guilty. It just means he has to stand trial.
Kristen Davenpo…: Mr. Bretherick is free to raise his arguments in front of a jury. Just because he lost when he had the burden of proof in front of a judge, doesn’t mean he’s going to lose in front of a jury. He still has that right. It didn’t change anything.
Justice Barbara…: Is there any state…
Nadia Hamdan: Justice Pariente again.
Justice Barbara…: Any state that has a Stand Your Ground law that has put into place a pretrial evidentiary hearing where the state would have to prove before a judge that the force was not justifiable beyond a reasonable doubt?
Kristen Davenpo…: There is none. That’s what… That is unprecedented.
Nadia Hamdan: In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Jared. Justices argue that the state’s Stand Your Ground law doesn’t give him blanket immunity, that Jared and anyone else claiming self-defense has to prove that they deserve it, that they really were in fear for their lives.
Four years after Jared and his family were confronted on that highway, his case gets kicked back down to the trial court, and he takes a plea, one year probation. And while that was the end for Jared, this had grown much bigger than one man’s case.
While reporting this story, I spoke to half a dozen attorneys who told me that what Eric Friday was proposing would effectively tie the hands of prosecutors.
David LaBahn: It creates an almost impossibility.
Nadia Hamdan: David LaBahn is the president and CEO of the National Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. It serves as an advocate for prosecutors across the country. He says it’s crucial for people who claim Stand Your Ground to first prove to a court that they acted in self-defense. Otherwise…
David LaBahn: We’ve got to disprove something, even when the defense has not presented evidence that in fact it’s true.
Nadia Hamdan: And he says not all cases are like Jared’s. Derek Dunning, he’s alive. He can testify about what happened to him. What about the cases where the only other witness was shot dead?
David LaBahn: Only the defendant knows what she or he was feeling at the time that they took that life.
Nadia Hamdan: He says fear is subjective. Asking prosecutors to get inside someone’s head…
David LaBahn: Is an extraordinary burden.
Nadia Hamdan: One defense attorney I spoke to put it plainly. He said, if he doesn’t have to prove a client acted in self-defense, he could just lay back, go to sleep. He wouldn’t have to do anything, unless a prosecutor could somehow convince a judge that wasn’t self-defense. David says, justified or not, every homicide deserves an explanation.
David LaBahn: Why should you be immune when you take another person’s life?
Nadia Hamdan: But despite opposition from prosecutors, and despite a Florida Supreme Court ruling, the law would change, because Jared’s case had caught the eye of the NRA. And not just anyone at the NRA. It caught the eye of Marion Hammer. She was one of the NRA’s most powerful lobbyists, and while she declined to be interviewed for this story, she’s got quite the reputation. Here’s what Eric Friday had to say.
Eric Friday: Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation is no virtue. I’d say, in my experience, Ms. Hammer replies that personally.
Nadia Hamdan: Not only was she the first female president of the NRA, but she’s largely credited with getting Florida’s original Stand your Ground law passed back in 2005. Marion Hammer lives in Florida. She’s got a pageboy haircut, wears brightly-colored blazers, and stands less than five feet tall. She’s known to be a fierce and sometimes ruthless advocate for gun rights. To get an idea, you need only talk to Charles McBurney.
Charles McBurne…: I think I had a good, excellent relationship with the NRA.
Nadia Hamdan: Charles is a former Florida House Republican, and during his nearly 10 years in the House, he says he had either an A or A-plus rating from the NRA.
Charles McBurne…: The person that I probably dealt with the most was Marion Hammer, and I would describe that relationship as professional.
Nadia Hamdan: But all that changed once Marion Hammer decided to help push through a bill at the start of the 2016 legislative session. If passed, defendants would no longer have to prove they acted in self-defense. It quickly died in committee.
Charles McBurne…: So, during my experience in the Florida legislature, once a bill fails, that’s the end of it.
Nadia Hamdan: Somehow, though, it popped back up again at the very end of session.
Charles McBurne…: And I don’t recall that ever happening.
Nadia Hamdan: It was weird. But once the bill was revived, as the head of the House Judiciary Committee, it was Charles’s decision whether to give it another hearing. But he shared the same concerns as some Supreme Court justices.
Charles McBurne…: I was not aware of that happening anywhere, in any state. When you go into a novel area of law, what are the consequences out there?
Nadia Hamdan: Charles had been practicing law for more than four decades, and he worried shifting the burden of proof this way could make it harder to hold people accountable. And so, he tells Marion Hammer no, and he lets the bill die again.
Charles McBurne…: Well, she wasn’t happy.
Nadia Hamdan: But this was Charles’s last term. He didn’t think he had much to lose. And while he says he wasn’t alone in his concern about this bill, he was in a unique position to speak up, because he didn’t have to worry about being reelected.
Charles McBurne…: You could take those bullets, the proverbial bullets.
Nadia Hamdan: Right. You don’t want to make an enemy of the NRA while you’re still in office.
Charles McBurne…: Right. And that’s not, I will tell you, that’s not unusual. And that was kind of my thought, is that, okay, well, I’ll make this decision, because I know that there are a number of members who feel as I do, that I don’t want to put them in that position.
Nadia Hamdan: As his time in the state legislature was coming to an end, Charles started looking to the next thing, and he decided to apply for a judicial position in a Florida circuit court. His was one of the names sent to the governor for consideration, and that’s when he learned just how unhappy Marion Hammerer was about his decision to kill the bill.
Charles McBurne…: There was, I think they called an alert from the NRA.
Nadia Hamdan: The alert went out to its members, it asked them to email then-Governor Rick Scott with the subject line, “CHARLES MCBURNEY IS UNFIT TO BE A JUDGE.” All caps. The alert even goes on to call him arrogant. And according to local news reports, thousands of emails poured into the governor’s inbox.
Charles McBurne…: Obviously, I didn’t get the appointment.
Nadia Hamdan: Charles says he’s not sure the governor would’ve appointed him without those emails, but he is sure they didn’t help.
Charles McBurne…: Marion got her, I guess, revenge, for lack of a better term.
Nadia Hamdan: He says it felt like she was trying to make an example of him, to show what happens when lawmakers go against the NRA. So he wrote an op-ed in the Florida Times Union directly to Marion Hammer, and he didn’t pull any punches. He called the bill a pro-criminal bill, and at the end… I’ll just let him read it for you.
Charles McBurne…: It’s the message being sent to our legislators and elected officials that you can be with me on virtually everything, but if you cross me once, even if the issue doesn’t involve the Second Amendment, I will take you out, even if you leave the legislature or that elected office. Without a doubt, that’s the message being sent.
Nadia Hamdan: In 2017, Governor Rick Scott signed into law that self-defense immunity bill. Anyone claiming self-defense in Florida no longer has to prove it. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was already tough. Now, it’s pretty much bulletproof.
David LaBahn represents prosecutors across the country, and he says nobody wants an innocent person to go to prison. But we as a society agree that life is sacred, and if you kill someone, even if it was to save yourself, why shouldn’t you have to answer for it?
David LaBahn: When you take a life, we should know why you took that life, and how you took that life.
Nadia Hamdan: Who knew a trip to Disney World could end up here?
Al Letson: After Florida, Utah and South Dakota passed similar laws expanding Stand Your Ground, and many experts tell us it’s likely that more states will follow. That story was from Reveal’s Nadia Hamdan. Nadia produced today’s episode, along with Jonathan Jones.
Queena Kim and Brett Myers edited the show, with additional editing from Nina Martin and Maryam Saleh. Decomel Downing provided research and reporting for today’s show. And thanks to an Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Laura Peliser for production help. Nikki Frick is our fact-checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel.
Our production manager is Steven Rascon. Score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando “My Man, Yo” Arruda. Our post-production team this week includes Kathryn Styer Martinez. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers. Our theme song is by Camerado Lightning.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.