Another “Stand Your Ground” Acquittal (Again) Shows Urgent Need for 10-20-Life Reform

Post Date: June 3, 2013

Last week, a jury in Tampa acquitted 70-year-old retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Wald in the shooting death of his wife’s lover, 32-year-old Walter Conley. Wald shot Conley after he woke in the middle of the night to find his wife and Conley having sex on the living room floor. Wald claims he shot Conley out of fear for his wife’s safety, believing Conley was a rapist who’d broken into his home.

Prosecutors, of course, didn’t believe Wald’s story. They alleged Wald killed Conley in a jealous rage, fueled in part by Wald’s impotence. Assistant State Attorney Chris Moody told the jury:

It’s a personal insult to conduct that kind of activity in a man’s home, his castle. It cuts to the quick. It’s brazen. That kind of deep and personal insult, when you find another man having sex in your living room and you can’t, would make you want to lash out. And he did.

After two hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Mr. Wald. I have no idea whether Wald was telling the truth. I have no idea whether it was jealous rage or genuine fear that compelled him to shoot Mr. Conley. But Ido know that Wald’s case is yet another reminder of why Florida needs to reform its 10-20-Life gun sentencing laws.

As we’ve seen previously, representatives from the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association have argued publicly that prosecutors in Floridanever file charges in cases where they think a valid self-defense claim exists. Last year at one of several public meetings designed to examine Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Mark Wilson, State Attorney for Florida’s 16th Judicial Circuit, explained that:

There’s going to be a small number of cases where we don’t think there’s a real self-defense claim, a genuine, bona fide self-defense claim, and we’re going to file on it. Most of the time the courts will agree with us. But there will be a few cases where the courts don’t. There is reasonable disagreement. This is a human endeavor. None of us are perfect. And reasonable persons, men and women will disagree, of course, about these matters.

Evidence that “reasonable persons” will disagree about whether an act is self-defense can be found in the Tampa Bay Times’ study of roughly 200 “Stand Your Ground” cases. Of those cases, 23% were granted immunity by judges and 10% were acquitted by a jury. Taking both the prosecutors’ claims and that data at face value means, of course, that in a full 1/3 of those cases, prosecutors did not believe a self-defense claim was legitimate, but a judge or jury did.

In other words, because the “Stand Your Ground” statute does not – and indeed, cannot – delineate an exhaustive list of what acts should and should not be considered “self-defense,” then whether a given act will be considered self-defense is almost by definition a question of fact, and a question about which “reasonable persons” will disagree. Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Krista Marx explains:

I have tried cases with two juries at the same exact time, receiving almost identical evidence, and they don’t return the same verdict all the time. Reasonable minds will vary.

In most cases, the fact that “reasonable minds will vary” is not per seproblematic. That’s because in most cases, if a defendant is convicted, a judge will get to take all of the relevant facts and determine an appropriate sentence. Of course, because of our “10-20-Life” gun sentencing law, that’s not the case with self-defense cases in Florida.

10-20-Life requires a mandatory minimum sentence irrespective of the underlying facts of a case. It’s a dumb law that hasn’t worked, but it’s at its worst in self-defense cases. 

Because reasonable minds will vary about what is and isn’t self-defense, there’s something of a funnel effect in Stand Your Ground cases. Given a set of facts where a defendant claims self-defense, some State Attorneys will opt not to bring charges. But others will. And some judges will dismiss those charges under “Stand Your Ground.” But others won’t. And some defendants will take plea bargains. But some won’t. And some juries will acquit. But some won’t. At every stage of that analysis, a defendant might get relief from a mandatory minimum sentence. But whether or not the defendant will get relief is largely a matter of chance. This State Attorney vs. that one. This judge vs. that one. This jury vs. that one.Reasonable minds will disagree. As I’ve pointed out, the same set of facts in five jurisdictions could yield five different outcomes, ranging from no charges being filed to 20 years in prison.

What happens, then, when, purely by coincidence, a defendant faces a State Attorney who brings charges, a judge who won’t dismiss the case, and a jury who votes to convict (rather than any one of their opposites)? 

Thisthisthisthis, and this. And others just like it.

State Attorneys weigh facts in deciding whether or not to bring charges. Judges weigh facts in deciding whether or not to dismiss those charges. And juries weigh facts in deciding whether or not to convict. At every stage of the procedural process, self-defense cases are intensely fact-specific. Every stage except sentencing. At sentencing, facts just don’t matter. If you’re found guilty and you used a gun, 10-20-Life mandates  you go to prison for 20 years.

Fire a warning shot because you thought your elderly friend was about to be mauled by thugs? Doesn’t matter, 20 years. Thought some drug-addled psychopath was going after your gun in your own home? Doesn’t matter, 20 years. Thought your abusive husband was going to beat on you until he killed you? Doesn’t matter, 20 years. It doesn’t matter that the author of 10-20-Life didn’t intend it to apply in your case.  It doesn’t even matter that, in some other jurisdiction, you might not even have been arrested. None of that matters. You’re getting twenty years.

Florida House Judiciary Chair Dennis Baxley once explained his reasoning for authoring “Stand Your Ground.”

… a victim of a violent attack has seconds to decide if they want to live or they want to die or they want to be a victim of violence, such as rape or a beating. And I think in those circumstances, we need to give that law-abiding citizen the benefit of the doubt and stand beside them and say if you can stop a violent act from occurring that’s going to victimize you and your family, that we’re going to stand with you.

Unfortunately, 10-20-Life makes all of that moot. The status quo requires law-abiding gun owners to weigh the prospect of a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence against defending themselves or their families all in the “seconds” they have in the face of a perceived threat. As I’ve said before, this leaves Floridians vulnerable to attack (or, in the alternative, vulnerable to misguided prosecution and lengthy incarceration), either an unambiguously indefensible outcome.

The answer to all of this is simple. Include sentencing among the fact-intensive inquiries available at all other stages of the procedural process, and allow judges to weigh relevant facts and determine appropriate sentences in self-defense cases.

Last year, Representative Neil Combee (R, Polk County) and Senator Thad Altman (R, Melbourne) sponsored legislation – supported by gun rights groups and self-defense advocates – that would go a long way toward correcting the more obvious problems with 10-20-Life as applied in self-defense cases. (Inexplicably, although almost everyone who looked at the bill recognized it as a common sense solution to an overwhelmingly obvious problem, the bill never made it onto the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee agenda.)

The legislature should revisit this problem at the earliest possible time, and make 10-20-Life reform – one of the recommendations of Governor Scott’s “Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection” – a priority. Until they do, law-abiding citizens seeking only to protect themselves or their loved ones will continue to be sent to prison for decades. No legislator can claim to be an advocate of the Second Amendment or a friend to gun owners unless he or she is also willing to stand up and support immediate reform of 10-20-Life.

But don’t take my word for it. Marion Hammer, former president of the National Rifle Association and now the NRA’s Florida lobbyist (and, full disclosure, one of my heroines), explains the issue better than I could. In her powerful presentation to the Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection last year, Ms. Hammer offered a compelling defense of “Stand Your Ground.”

Near the end of her presentation, Ms. Hammer was asked (around the177-minute mark) whether she agrees with calls to reform 10-20-Life to better protect the self-defense rights of law-abiding citizens. She responded:

I absolutely agree with that. 10-20-Life has had far-reaching unintended consequences. And why it hasn’t been addressed so far is a mystery to me.

Given the manifest injustices that have come as a result of the legislature’s continued failure to correct these problems, it’s a mystery to me, too. Nevertheless, Ms. Hammer is right. One can only hope the legislature will heed her wisdom and fix this law as soon as possible.

~ Greg Newburn
Florida Project Director

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