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‘Anti-Riot’ Bill Heard By One and Only Senate Committee

April 9th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State Senators slated nine and a half hours Friday to consider and debate the controversial anti-rioting legislation in its one and only committee stop before reaching the Senate floor.

More than 50 members of the public came to testify against the legislation.

They fear it will be used as a tool to silence voices that disagree with the Republican- controlled legislature.

“When you are challenging the tools of white supremacy in the state and in the country, they don’t consider you peaceful,” said Jami Davis with Black Voters Matter.

Sponsor Senator Danny Burgess argued the bill’s increased penalties for crimes committed during a riot are necessary to prevent the unrest witnessed in 2020 and on January 6th.

“Because I was rendered speechless watching US soldiers inside our nation’s Capitol protect us from ourselves,” said Burgess.

Democratic Senator Jason Pizzo questioned the true target of the bill.

“Do you think President Trump would be guilty of mob intimidation on January 6th?” asked Pizzo.

“I’m not going to speculate on that,” replied Burgess.

Democrats tired to amend a study onto the bill to analyze whether the legislation in practice has a disparate impact on minorities.

It failed, but it came with a commitment from the sponsor.

“I will do all I can with you to get an OPAGA study here,” said Burgess.

The legislation takes effect upon the Governor’s signature, which unusual for a criminal justice bill.

“There’s a trial going on somewhere right now, the verdict and the result of which, might make some people really unhappy,” said Pizzo.

Lawmakers anticipate it may be the first test run of the legislation.

“The Floyd trial is just kind of serving as a flashpoint for the concerns,” said State Senator Gary Farmer.

If the full Senate approves the bill without amendments it will head straight to the Governor’s desk.

If lawmakers aren’t able to wrap up Friday, another nine hour hearing is on the agenda Saturday.

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House and Senate Split on Response to 2020 Civil Unrest

March 24th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Senate and House are split on how to respond to the civil unrest spurred by the death of George Floyd.

The Florida House is moving full steam ahead with legislation that would raise penalties for crimes committed during a riot, but the Senate has taken a different approach, pushing a police reform bill that reflects some of the concerns raised during the civil unrest in 2020.

“I think law enforcement is looking, not for bills and for policy that creates a further divide between the community and law enforcement, but things that bring us together,” said Senator Jason Pizzo.

Pizzo, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, is sponsoring the policing reform package.

“This is everyone’s opportunity, basically not to have short term memories. You know again, in May and early June, everybody, both sides of the isle came out and said these atrocities need to stop, we need to improve the situation. Here’s your opportunity,” said Pizzo.

It would mandate implicit bias and deescalation training.

“At the very least, let’s have a standard threshold of best practices and promulgate them statewide,” said Pizzo.

It also creates a duty for officers to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force and bans choke holds in most situations.

“You know, it’s an imminent life threatening situation, any and all response is appropriate,” said Pizzo.

The police reform bill is being held up in the House by the prime co-sponsor of the anti-rioting legislation.

Likewise, the anti-rioting bill is being blocked in the Senate by the sponsor of the police reform bill.

Thus far, the two sides seem unwilling to compromise.

House Criminal Justice Chair Cord Byrd is skeptical of the police reforms proposed in the Senate.

“We’re trying to get at the bad ones, not impugn the behavior of all police officers,” said Byrd.

When asked a deal could be worked out between the two chambers, Byrd said one was currently not in the works, but left open the possibility.

“That’s what the end of session is for,” said Byrd.

Pizzo was more direct.

“I don’t horse trade. There’s no bartering going on. There’s no communication. I’ve actually never spoken to Cord Byrd,” said Pizzo.

Pizzo noted there’s only one Criminal Justice meeting left in the Senate.

The anti-rioting bill is not on the agenda.

Byrd said there would be multiple amendments made to the anti-rioting legislation when it’s heard by the full House.

Whether it will be enough to garner support in the Senate is an open question.

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Court Closures Could Mean Delayed Justice for Innocent Inmates

April 7th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Supreme Court has ordered all jury trials in the state suspended until the June, extending a previous order by two months.

The potential for innocent people sitting in jail for an extended period of time has human rights groups and defense attorneys sounding the alarm.

Jury trials have been suspended in Florida due to hurricanes in the past, but Richard Greenberg with the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the now three-month delay for COVID-19 is different.

“People sitting in jail are very, very concerned… Every week it seems like the deadlines are being pushed back,” said Greenberg.

Normally, those charged with a misdemeanor have the right to a trial within 90 day and those with felony charges 175, but under the order those rights have been waived.

The concern from groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center… Innocent people could have to spend longer behind bars if they can’t make bail.

“And what I fear is going to happen is we’re going to see more people pleading guilty just to get out of jail. Not because they committed the crime, not because they don’t have a viable defense,” said Sumayya Saleh with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There are also concerns of overcrowding.

While justice may be on hold, police are still making arrests.

And in the midst of a pandemic, lives could be on the line.

“Jails are one of the most dangerous places for people to be in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s not possible for people to socially distance,” said Saleh.

But Greenberg hopes the state finds other solutions, like non-monetary bond for nonviolent offenders.

“They may be able to get arrested and booked and released. They don’t have to sit in jail because they can’t afford to post bond,” said Greenberg.

So far, the Governor has not expressed support for early inmate release or any executive action that could provide alternatives to monetary bond.

Some court proceedings will still be held in the midst of the crisis like first appearances and bail hearings.

The Supreme Court has encouraged those hearings be conducted remotely.

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Backed By Celebrities, Crime Survivors Unveil 2020 Agenda

February 19th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Survivors of crime from across the state unveiled their legislative agenda Wednesday.

All week they’ve been meeting with lawmakers and even rap artist T-Pain.

T-Pain, ’T’ standing for Tallahassee, knows all too well the suffering caused by violent crime.

“In 2017 with my niece being murdered in Tallahassee, you know and there not really being anything in place for any reconciliation or anything like that,” said T-Pain.

Speaking with survivors, the artist is supporting their push for reforms in Florida.

“Being that there’s no momentum in the past, any pace and any step forward is progress,” said T-Pain.

But the group’s main audience is the Florida Legislature.

“We as crime survivors know where the gaps are and what can help us and our communities. We just need to be heard,” said Aswad Thomas with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.

Joined by former NFL Player Stedman Bailey, whose career was cut short when he fell victim to gun violence in South Florida, survivors unveiled their 2020 agenda.

It includes housing and employment protections for crime victims.

“Many victims and witnesses to crimes struggle with safety in their homes in their community,” said crime survivor Dr. Ladonna Butler.

They also are supporting legislation that would give certain prisoners the ability to earn more time off their sentence for good behavior.

Jo-Lee Manning’s daughter was killed in a hit and run involving a woman who had been arrested ten previous times.

“I’d be willing for her to get out of jail now if she could be a productive citizen,” said Manning.

Just a day before crime survivors came out in support of allowing prisoners to earn more time off their sentence, Florida Law Enforcement also stood on the fourth floor of the Capitol announcing their opposition to the idea.

Lawmakers like Representative Shevrin Jones who support the reforms, said the Legislature has a choice to make.

“We’re either for criminal justice reform or we’re not,” said Jones.

Last year crime survivors were able to score some of the first major criminal justice reform the state had seen in 20 years.

Whether they can repeat that success is yet to be seen.

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Law Enforcement Pushes Back Against Proposed Criminal Justice Reforms

February 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida Sheriffs and Police Chiefs are pushing back against proposed criminal justice reforms including a bill that would allow judges to divert from mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and another that would increase the amount of gain time prisoners could earn to get out early.

Law enforcement unveiled a study which concluded prisoners incarcerated on drug convictions had an average of 36 prior charges and 18 prior convictions.

They also found 85 percent of the inmates had committed prior violent crimes or burglaries.

“These are he criminals that will potentially end up back in your neighborhoods and communities if some of the legislation that has been proposed passed. You know for the life of me I don’t see how putting more of these repeat offenders back in our communities before they’re reformed is going to make our communities safer,” said Gary Hester with the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Those supporting the reforms have argued the changes would not apply to repeat offenders or violent felons.

Law enforcement countered that at least one provision, which would set a maximum jail sentence of one year for simple possession, could result in light sentences for some who would otherwise do hard time.

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Crime Victims Arrive at Capitol for Week of Advocacy

February 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

400 victims of crime from across the state arrived in Tallahassee Monday ahead of a planned week of advocacy at the state Capitol.

This is the third year in a row victims have organized in hopes of expanding victims rights and lobbying for criminal justice reform.

Aswad Thomas with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice said last year the group achieved some success.

“We were able to extend the time limit for victims of crime to file for the state’s victims’ compensation program from one year to three years. We also extended the time limit that’s needed for victims to file a police report in order to be eligible for the program from 72 hours to five days,” said Thomas.

A rally is scheduled for Wednesday, where victims say they will unveil their 2020 legislative goals.

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Sheriffs Continue to Push Back on Criminal Justice Reforms

January 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s prison system is in crisis and lawmakers are proposing lower sentences for drug users, early release for elderly inmates and allowing judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences.

93,823 inmates woke up in a Florida Prison Cell Tuesday morning.

Staffing is short, contraband is up and attacks on officers and other inmates are also up.

“We think there are massive problems inside the Department of Corrections,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes.

Brandes is proposing inmates who learn a trade get their sentence reduced from 85 to 65 percent.

“How do we motivate them to be prepared to leave the prison system with a skill, a job, an education,” said Brandes.

But Florida Sheriff’s are pushing back with a report called Truth in Sentencing.

“You about have to beg your way into state prison,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “The policies and laws that keep felons off the streets and out of our neighborhoods work. Crime is at a near 50 year low.”

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, who directed the study, said the numbers don’t lie.

“And I’m afraid that this idea to just do away blanket with these sentences can have a really unintended consequences,” said Adkinson.

Florida Sheriffs argue that 95 percent of the prison population is made up of repeat offenders, but advocates assert that prisons have become nothing more than warehouses.

But Brandes believes the Sheriffs’ claim supports his case for reform.

“If we know that 95 percent are going to come right back out, shouldn’t we look to fix the existing system so it isn ’t 95 percent? That’s what our legislation does,” said Brandes.

Florida’s 20 State Attorneys also oppose any changes to the state’s sentencing laws that would shorten prison sentences.

This year, the prison system is costing taxpayers just over $2.4 billion.

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Markel Murder Trial Now in Jury’s Hands

October 10th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The fates of two people accused of killing an FSU professor are now in the hands of twelve jurors.

Prosecutors urged the jury not to be swayed by the fact that those ultimately responsible are not in the courtroom.

Prosecutors began their two hour summation pinning the blame squarely on the family of Dan Markel’s ex wife.

“What enemy or enemies had Mr. Markel made that set into motion such a brutal act? The answer: his own family,” said Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman.

For three weeks the government has played wiretaps and a video referred to as the bump, where an undercover FBI agent hands a note to Donna Adelson, Dan Markel’s ex-mother-in-law, and then recorded who talked to whom.

“She goes straight to Charlie Adelson who goes straight to Katherine Magbanua, who goes goes straight to Sigfredo Garcia. Exactly what this undercover operation was designed to ferret out,” said Cappleman.

But Cappleman told jurors that justice for anyone not in the courtroom would have to wait for another day.

“We are all trusting you to render a wise and legal verdict in this case,” said Cappleman.

Defense lawyers did their best to try and shift the blame to someone else.

Accused triggerman Sigfredo Garcia’s lawyer tried to shift the blame to Luis Rivera, the gang kingpin who became the government’s key witness.

“A gangster killed Dan Markel. Luis Rivera killed Dan Markel,” said attorney Saam Zangeneh.

The lawyer for Katherine Magbanua turned the attention back to the Adelson’s.

“They tried to build a case around her. To force her to cooperate, so they could get what they have been going after for years now, the Adelson family,” said Attorney Chris DeCoste.

The jury got the case just before 4 pm.

The Adelson’s have not been charged with any crime and they deny any involvement in the Markel murder.

The case is going to be the subject of at least two national news magazines shows in the coming weeks.

Both Dateline NBC and 20/20 are working on the true crime story.

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Judges Highlight Importance of Justice Access After Hurricanes

May 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With just 12 days remaining before the start of the 2019 Hurricane Season, the Commission on Access to Civil Justice was briefed on a litany of problems created for the courts and those who use them during Hurricane Michael.

They included the inability to get a quick hearing for divorced parents with a prohibition of taking children further than 50 miles from the other parent, unusable courthouses, a lack of working technology, and more.

Justice Jorge Labarga, chair of the access commission said those charged with a crime got a hearing within the 24 hours as required by law.

“It’s important that people who get arrested during those days, the process continues to exist, because that’s how people know the rule of law is in place. It’s very easy for tempers to flare during those times and things happen, so we need to make sure that people know a judge will hear your case immediately,” said Labarga.

In two counties, Bay and Jackson, full courts services were down for as many as 19 days.

Volunteer staff and judges from nearby counties helped fill in as judges and their staffs recovered.

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Criminal Justice Reform Package Passes House

April 29th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida House approved a criminal justice reform package that raises the amount someone must steal to be considered a felon Monday.

It also provides opportunities to put those who have served their time back to work, and it gives victims more time to report crimes and apply for help.

The sweeping legislation makes changes to more than 75 areas of Flordia statutes, but lawmakers are also send the message they are not getting soft on crime.

“This bill does noting to take away from our public safety. It does nothing to disturb the 50 year low in our crime rate,” said House Sponsor Rep. Paul Renner.

Democrats hope this is just the beginning of a multi-year effort.

“There are people sitting in prison cells, doing seven, eight, nine years for drivers license suspensions,” said Rep. Dianne Hart.

One of the differences between the House and the Senate is when is stealing something become a felony.

Right now, someone stealing $300 worth of merchandise can be charged with a felony.

The House bill raises the minimum level to a $1,000 dollars.

The Senate and Florida Retail Federation want it set at $750.

“Theft is wrong. We all realize that. The biggest questions is at what level is somebody going to be branded a felon for the rest of their lives,” said House Co-Sponsor Rep. Byron Donalds.

There is good news for victims.

Debbie Ortise of Tampa turned to drugs after being assaulted.

No one told her there was counseling available, but this legislation gives victims up to three years to seek help.

“I’m very lucky to be here today. And I am sure there are other survivors who have lost their lives or have ended up on the wrong side of the law because there were no services available to them because they had unresolved trauma,” said Ortise.

The law also gives crime victims five days to report a crime, up from three.

The legislation eases restrictions on felons applying for professional licenses.

Right now someone who cut hair in prison for five years would not be allowed to count those hours toward being a barber on the outside.

Under the legislation those hours would count.

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Crime Victims Call for Criminal Justice Reform

April 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

This week is crime victims rights week at the state Capitol.

350 victims of crime were in the Capitol building asking for more victims recourses Tuesday, but part of the message they’re sending to lawmakers is a criminal justice system that focuses on rehabilitation over punishment.

One by one the members of the crowd shouted the names of loved ones who have been lost to violent crime.

Victims say untreated trauma leads many victims down dark paths.

“I had to reach a breaking point and almost lost my life to a suicide attempt before I was actually able to get that help,” said Deborah Ortiz, a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Survivors of the Pulse Night Club Shooting and the Parkland shooing were among the crowd.

Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin lost his life in the Parkland shooting, echoed the call for more victims resources.

“We need to concentrate on this issue, that is trauma recovery,” said Oliver.

Victims are asking for lawmakers to extend the time a crime can be reported from 72 hours to five days.

They also want to extend the time they can apply for victim compensation funds from 1 to 5 years.

Part of the message victims are sending is the need for a more rehabilitative criminal justice system, arguing many criminals are victims themselves.

Dr. LaDonna Butler, a victim of sexual assault, who is now a mental health professional, says the two pronged approach could prevent victims from becoming perpetuators and put criminals back on the right track.

“We need to be able to stop that flow, so that people can get services in a way that is responsive to their needs before becoming perpetrators of violence themselves,” said Butler.

Agnes Furey’s daughter and grandson were both murdered in 1998.

She argues the best way to prevent future crime, is to break the cycle of violence through rehabilitation.

“If somebody cannot work, cannot function, cannot meet their Maslow’s needs, their going to do what they know how to do,” said Furey.

Victims are hopeful their message is getting through to lawmakers.

One thing is certain, they’ll be back each year until they get the change they’re looking for.

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Hundreds of Criminal Justice Reformers Take to State Capitol

March 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Reforming sentencing laws and helping former inmates find a job was the goal of about 250 people demonstrating at the state Capitol Wednesday.

Lawmakers are exploring ways to keep people out of prison in an effort to cut costs.

For the second day in a row hundreds rallied at the state capitol demanding criminal justice reform.

“Currently there are almost 100,000 people in prison. We are locking up too many people for far far too long. We’ve got to fix that,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal with the SPLC Action Fund.

Audrey Hudgins’ son has been one of those inmates for 22 years and will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

“My son and our family are still living this daily nightmare,” said Hudgins.

He got the mandatory minimum sentence for armed robbery, even though no one was hurt.

“And there was nothing the judge could do about it. Her hands were tied,” said Hudgins.

It’s stories like Hudgins’ that have advocates like Judy Thompson calling for parole to come back to the state.

“We all change over time. There’s no assessment in place to determine whether or not we can be an asset to the outer society,” said Thompson.

Some Justice reforms are already gaining traction this year, including a bill that would raise the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500.

Bill sponsor, Senator Jeff Brandes says the need for reform goes beyond the emotional argument. There’s a financial crisis at the Department of Corrections.

“Our prisons are literally at the breaking point financially, facility wise. Our guards, our wardens are begging for more resources,” said Brandes.

Dozens of States have already taken some of the steps being proposed here in Florida and haven’t crime rates increase.

Other changes reformers are pushing include ending the practice of suspending drivers licenses for non driving offenses and preventing felony convictions from preventing former inmates from getting licensed in certain trades.

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Florida First Step Act Could Bring Major Criminal Justice Reforms

February 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Criminal Justice advocates are pushing a sweeping reform package aimed at reducing criminal sentences and helping rehabilitate prisoners instead of simply punishing them.

The Florida First Step act is modeled after a recently passed Federal law.

Florida prisons house nearly 100,000 inmates, costing taxpayers $2.6 billion a year.

Most inmates will be released within 5 years.

“That’s 85,000 people back out on the streets,” said Senator Keith Perry. “Are they going to be good citizens or are they going to recidivate?”

The problem, criminal justice reformers say, is that Florida’s system focuses more on punishment, not rehabilitation.

To shift the focus, some lawmakers are pushing the Florida First Step Act.

Among many changes, it would give judges discretion to divert from mandatory minimum sentences in non violent drug offenses and offer up to 60 days off sentences if they learn a trade of get an education.

“These are best practices from around the country that Florida would now be implementing and I think that’s all very positive,” said bill sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes.

A similar reform for federal prisons passed at the end of last year.

It’s the reason Matthew Charles, who was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 35 years for possession crack cocaine, is a free man today.

The Federal First step act  allowed judges to consider Charles’ behavior and efforts to change when deciding whether to release him early.

“Something was done on my behalf, but there’s thousands or hundreds of thousands of others, that nothing is being done on their behalf because they don’t have that voice,” said Charles.

However, Governor Ron DeSantis, who voted for the Federal law as a Congressman, is hesitant to support the initiative on the state level.

“The character of the crimes are a lot different. I mean, the Federal tends to be drug trafficking, there’s a lot of white collar [crimes],” said DeSantis. “The state you have a lot more just violent crimes.”

Similar reforms have failed in year’s past, but supporters hope the passage of the National First Step Act will give the legislation the push it needs.

The Florida First Step Act hasn’t been put on the agenda for any committees as of now.

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Criminal Justice Reform May Be Coming in 2019

January 31st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s criminal justice system might see some major changes this Legislative session.

Some top Florida officials have expressed support for some reforms that have been shot down in years past.

State Senator Jeff Brandes says the time for criminal justice reform in Florida is now.

“As bad as the criminal justice system and the prison system was last year, it’s worse this year as far as funding, budget and personnel,” said Brandes.

Part of Brandes and other criminal justice reformers’ approach to reducing the strain on the system, is is to reduce sentences for certain low level crimes and find alternatives to prison for some offenders.

“Are people better served in community supervision, are people better served in mental health and substance abuse treatment programs,” said Chelsea Murphy with Right on Crime.

Many bills sponsored by Brandes in years past have failed to cross the finish line.

One example, raising the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500, but that proposal now has support from Governor Ron DeSantis.

“I don’t want some 15-year-old kid to do something stupid, but doesn’t mean he’s a bad kid and then end up with a felony because he stole a bicycle or something that cost $305,” said DeSantis.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashely Moody also says the state needs to improve its criminal justice system.

Her focus is primarily on mental health.

That’s the direction some other criminal justice groups say the state should really focus on.

“I think that’s where the reformers are missing it. They’re trying to play around on the sentencing stuff,” said Barney Bishop with Florida Smart Justice Alliance. “Don’t do that. The core problem is two issues. Substance abuse and mental health.”

Some of Brandes’ other proposed reforms include, giving judges discretion in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, allowing courts the option to set no bail for low flight risk offenders who can’t afford to pay and allowing prisoners who enroll in educational programs to have up to 60 days removed from their sentence.

With the passage of Amendment 11 in November, lawmakers will now have the option of applying sentencing changes retroactively.

Which means new laws could immediately impact those behind bars, not just future convictions.

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Stand Your Ground Law Faces New Criticism After Parking Lot Shooting

July 23rd, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
In 2017, State lawmakers changed Stand Your Ground to require prosecutors prove someone didn’t fear for their life when asserting stand your ground instead of the other way around.
Now a deadly shooting in a Clearwater parking lot is renewing calls for the law’s repeal.
Shifting the burden of proof in stand your ground cases was supported by both defense attorney’s and public defenders.
“We want to make sure people accused of a crime have as many rights as possible,” said President of the Florida Criminal Defense Attorney Association, Richard Greenberg,
Greenberg likened the shooting by 47-year-old Michael Drejk to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, calling Drejk a parking space vigilante.
Surveillance video shows Drejk getting pushed down.
Now prosecutors must decide if he really feared for his life.
“That’s as very subjective point. Whether the person himself, him or her self, feels that they are in a reasonably, imminent danger,” said Greenberg.
Since it’s inception, black Democrats have continually pushed to get rid of stand your ground.
They say the law affects their constituents more than anyone else’s.
Freshman State Representative Ramon Alexander voted no on changes to the law.
Now he’s calling for its total repeal.
“Stand Your Ground is a bad law, and Stand Your Ground needs to be repealed. Point blank and simple,” said Alexander.
Tallahassee based prosecutor Jack Campbell supports a person’s rights to defend themselves, but says the law has resulted in injustice.
“We’re having far too many shootings,  We’re having far too many people who are dying without any consequence at all,” said Campbell.
Prosecutors are meeting this week in South West Flordia.
Campbell says no one there is second guessing how this case will turn out.
The NRA declined to comment on this story.
Changing the burden of proof in stand your ground cases with the group’s number one priority in 2017.

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