ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The lawyer for acquitted killer George Zimmerman said the rules for Florida murder trials should be changed so jurors are only instructed to consider the lenient standards of the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law when a case merits it.
The controversial “stand your ground” provision makes it easier to use lethal force in self-defense by removing the duty of a shooter to retreat and avoid a confrontation.
Attorney Mark O’Mara said he will send to the Florida Bar this week a proposal to let judges decide when juries should be instructed to consider stand your ground.
“Only include it in those cases where the ‘stand your ground, no duty to retreat’ issue is relevant,” O’Mara told Reuters on Wednesday.
O’Mara argued self defense on behalf of his client Zimmerman in the Florida shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2011. Unarmed Florida teen Jordan Davis was killed in 2012 and his killer, Michael Dunn, also claimed self defense.
Jurors in both trials told reporters the instruction on stand your ground affected their work, leading to Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal in Martin’s murder and a hung jury on February 15 in Dunn’s case.
O’Mara said his proposal was “a nice polishing of the jury instructions that will address people’s concerns that juries are getting confused about stand your ground when it’s not appropriate.”
The stand your ground provision allows people who “reasonably” believe they are in imminent danger of serious bodily injury to use deadly force to defend themselves even if, despite their belief, no real threat exists.
The law can be applied pre-trial to seek immunity from prosecution or during trial when it must be taken into consideration by juries.
Prior to the change in 2005 a person had a duty to retreat unless they were in their home.
But O’Mara’s proposal may not be so easy to implement, other legal analysts said.
“In order to change the jury instruction, the Florida Supreme Court or the legislature has to approve the change,” said David Weinstein, a former state prosecutor now in private practice in Miami. “It’s hard to see that happening in the current political climate,” he said.
Civil rights groups and a handful of state legislators are urging a legal review of Florida’s self-defense statute, saying it has created a license to kill for gun owners who hate or fear young black men. But gun rights activists, backed by a Republican-controlled legislature, have resisted all efforts to undo the law.
Davis’ parents said the law is too subjective and allows gun owners to shoot on the slightest fear, even if only imaginary.
O’Mara said neither Zimmerman nor Dunn needed the help of the stand your ground statute to defend their shootings. O’Mara contends neither man in the final moments before the killings had an ability to retreat - Zimmerman because he was pinned down by Martin during a fight, and Dunn because he erroneously thought he saw Davis holding a shotgun.
Prosecutors and the victims’ families, however, accused the killers of unnecessarily instigating the fights that led to the teens’ deaths.
O’Mara said his proposal would dispel confusion for jurors in certain self defense cases but acknowledged it would not change juries’ responsibility to determine what is a reasonable fear in the mind of a shooter.
Nor would it stop what many people believe as the emboldening of people to act aggressively. O’Mara said some people now believe the use of deadly force is more justified than it is.
Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman