U.S. AG Holder blasts Stand Your Ground

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJuly 17, 2013 

Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law garnered new critics Tuesday, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Speaking at the NAACP's annual convention in Orlando, Holder said the time had come "to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods."

Miami lawyer David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, called the speech "appropriate" in light of the concerns raised by civil rights organizations.

To date, more than 1 million people have signed an NAACP petition urging the U.S. Department of Justice to file federal civil-rights violation charges against George Zimmerman, the organization said.

"The Justice Department has a high burden of proof to meet before they can file any federal charges," Weinstein said. "His shifting of the focus from an investigation into possible civil rights-hate crime charges to an analysis of self-defense laws was the appropriate response. This approach will keep people's expectations in check and not create false hope."

The sentiment was echoed in Tallahassee, where more than 100 student activists crowded into Gov. Rick Scott's office to demand a repeal of the self-defense law.

The activists, who called themselves the Dream Defenders, called on Scott to convene a special session of the Legislature dedicated to Stand Your Ground, racial profiling and what they called the school-to-prison pipeline. They also called on Florida lawmakers to pass a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act.

"If the courts aren't going to deal with these issues, we have to call upon our elected officials to make changes," said Nailah Summers, 25, a Miami Beach native and president of the University of Florida chapter of the Dream Defenders.

Summers and the other protesters flooded Scott's office early Tuesday, and pledged to stay until they could meet with the governor.

There was one problem: Scott was in New York.

The young activists decided to wait for the governor's return.

When the Capitol closed at 5 p.m., police allowed about two dozen protesters to stay inside overnight. The Dream Defenders planned to dine on leftover pizza and sleep on the tile floors.

It was unclear when Scott would return to his office, or whether he planned to meet with the students Wednesday. But Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers pointed out the governor had convened a task force last year to review the Stand Your Ground law.

"The task force recommended that the law should not be overturned, and Gov. Scott agrees," Sellers said.

Protests elsewhere in the country were less peaceful. In Los Angeles, protesters broke windows and blocked a freeway. At least 14 people were arrested, according to published reports.

Trayvon supporters also took to social media Tuesday, many to propose a boycott of Florida until Stand Your Ground is repealed.

At least two online petitions on MoveOn.org demanding the law be reformed or repealed have attracted about 7,200 signatures. A separate Boycott Florida page on Facebook has more than 1,300 "likes."

R&B legend Stevie Wonder announced during his Quebec City performance Sunday that he would not perform in Florida until the Stand Your Ground law is repealed.

Zimmerman waived his right to a Stand Your Ground hearing before trial, and did not invoke it as part of the defense strategy. But it was included in the jury instructions.

In a portion of an interview that aired Monday, Juror B37 said she and the other five members believed Trayvon was the aggressor in the Feb. 26, 2012, confrontation. The remarks aired Tuesday, however, were more nuanced.

"I think the roles changed," the juror said. "I think George got in a little too deep, which he shouldn't have been there. But Trayvon decided that he wasn't going to let him scare him and get one over up on him. I think Travyon got mad and attacked him."

Juror B37 announced Monday she had signed a deal with a literary agent to write a book. She backed off her plans Tuesday, saying that the sequestration of the jury during the long trial had "shielded [her] from the depth of pain that exists among the general public over every aspect of this case."

Speaking to Anderson Cooper, the juror said she felt as if she had gotten to know Zimmerman. She called the defendant by his first name, and said she knew what motivated him.

By contrast, the juror said she knew little about Trayvon.

"We basically had no information about what kind of a boy Trayvon was and what he did," she said. "We know where he went to school. That was about it -- and that he lived in Miami."

When asked what she would say to Trayvon's parents, the juror responded: "I would say, I'm terribly sorry for your loss. It's a tragedy. ... I didn't know him, but I felt their pain because of his death."

Fighting back tears, she added: "I felt bad that we couldn't give them the verdict that they wanted. But legally, we couldn't do that."

The CNN interview also raised new questions about the role Florida's Stand Your Ground law played in the jury deliberations.

Under the 2005 self-defense law, a person may use deadly force if the person "reasonably believes" he or she is in a life-threatening situation -- and has no obligation to attempt to retreat from the threat.

"Serving on this jury has been a highly emotional and physically draining experience for each of us," the jurors wrote in a joint statement, in which they also asked for privacy. "The death of a teenager weighed heavily on our hearts but in the end we did what the law required us to do."

-- Miami Herald staff writers Audra D. S. Burch and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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