Criminal defense lawyer Esther Whitehead joins other civil rights leaders during a press conference in downtown Orlando. (Photo by Dave Raith).
ORLANDO – Criminal defense lawyer Esther Whitehead, a former prosecutor, says Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law should not be used as a defense in the Trayvon Martin shooting case.
“It’s not a law that says you can shoot first and ask questions later,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead recently took part in a press conference sponsored by the Florida Civil Rights Association, calling on the state to reopen 68 cases in which people were charged with a violent crime, then successfully used Florida’s Stand Your Ground law to gain an acquittal.
They also want Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Adam Putnam – whose office issues gun permits — to pull the licenses of those 68 individuals, and the gun permit held by George Zimmerman, the Sandford man was got arrested and charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old Martin.
The association held a press conference last week outside the Florida Division of Licensing Orlando regional office in downtown Orlando which houses Putnam’s local office. Florida law allows the state’s agriculture commissioner to pull a resident’s gun license if the office has been notified by local law enforcement that a permit holder is being charged with a felony.
Whitehead also used the press conference to put a focus on Stand Your Ground, the controversial law which involves when the use deadly force with an armed weapon is lawful. Since this law was passed, 130 people have used this law as a defense, and in 68 of those cases, the defendant was found not guilty.
The law, Whitehead said, is coming dangerously close to making it legal to shoot someone.
“Stand Your Ground does not mean ‘Bring a gun to a fistfight,’ “ she said.
Whitehead said she and other civil rights leaders plan to lobby the Florida Legislature to take a second look at the law, and examine it through the lens of the Martin-Zimmerman case, which prompted angry protests when it took authorities nearly two months to arrest Zimmerman.
Zimmerman was arrested the day before that press conference was held. He was charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of Martin, at the apartment complex in Sanford where Zimmerman was a watch commander. Zimmerman had claimed he acted in self defense, and was not initially charged with a crime. Martin’s family protested the lack of an arrest, and so did local, state and national civil rights leaders.
That prompted Gov. Rick Scott to appointment a special investigator, State Attorney Angela Corey of Jacksonville, to take over the case, and she filed the charges against Zimmerman.
The next day, Whitehead joined Attorney Shayan Elahi and other civil rights leaders to urge the agriculture commissioner to yank Zimmerman’s gun permit. Zimmerman remains in the Seminole County Jail in Sanford.
“This is just the beginning of this case,” Whitehead said. “People need to know that when he goes to trial, yes, there is a presumption of innocence first.”
But at the same time, with a 17-year-old who is now dead, law enforcement needed to take that death seriously and make an arrest, Whitehead said. She criticized Seminole County’s state prosecutor Norm Wolfinger, who did not file charges against Zimmerman on the night Martin was killed, and who was aksed by Gov. Scott to step aside on this case so Corey could take it over.
“Just based on the little that we know about the case, I can tell you that he had the ability to charge and doesn’t have to wait, so there is no reason for not doing so,” Whitehead said.
With an arrest, now is the time to carefully review all of the evidence, she added.
“Some people will say we will never know what truly happened, but that is when you look at the physical evidence,” Whitehead said.
“We have a system of laws,” she added. “You look at the facts. You look at the physical evidence that’s there.”
Scott also appointed a Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection to investigate how to ensure that a similar tragedy doesn’t happen in the future, and part of their task will be to review the Stand Your Ground law.
“Of course Mr. Zimmerman is going to say ‘He attacked me,’ ” Elahi said. “But if there are no other witnesses, that law (Stand Your Ground) should not apply immediately.”
Whitehead said she hopes the state Legislature also revisits the law and considers repealing it.
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