"I was in fear for my life."
That’s essentially all 22-year-old Reginald Bowman needed to say in court this week to justify shooting and killing 18-year-old Lyfe Coleman in Tampa in 2015. As long as prosecutors can’t prove he wasn’t afraid, he’ll go free.
Bowman is trying to use a new version of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which gives people immunity from prosecution for murder and other violent charges if they acted in self-defense. Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature revamped the law and made it easier than ever for someone to claim they simply “stood their ground” if they killed or seriously injured another person. Now, courts are seeing more people claim immunity under the law.
“There’s definitely been an increase since the legislature made the change,” said Mike Moore, a spokesperson for the Hillsborough County court hearing Bowman’s case. “More people are just like, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ It’s like, 'What is there to lose?'”
Bowman fired at Coleman after a gun sale gone wrong, according to Bowman’s Stand Your Ground motion filed in court this week. When Coleman failed to provide the agreed-upon amount of money for the gun, the two men wrestled for control of it, and when Coleman lunged toward him, Bowman fired a shot. Bowman’s neighbor, however, doesn’t remember any struggle between the men, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Florida became the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law in 2005. The old version required the person claiming immunity to prove in a pretrial hearing that they used deadly force because they felt threatened. Under the new version of the law, however, the burden of proof falls on prosecutors to convince a judge that the defendant did not feel threatened to move forward with the case.
“If the state of Florida is going to accuse a citizen of committing a crime, the state of Florida should have the burden of proof at each and every part of the proceedings,” Florida state Republican Senate President Joe Negron, who backed the bill, said when the change was made in June.
While the burden of proof always falls to prosecutors to prove someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, nowhere else in the American criminal justice system do prosecutors have to prove that the accused did not feel threatened before a case can move forward.
“Until we did it, it was unheard-of,” said Charles Rose, a law professor at Stetson University in Gulfport, Florida “It was an unnecessary change to fix a problem that didn't exist.”
Studies have already shown that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law came with an increase in murders, and a 2015 examination of 237 Stand Your Ground cases found that convictions happen more often with white victims than non-white victims.
Now, opponents worry the revamped law will further embolden people to use deadly force knowing they likely won’t face criminal consequences.
“The June change is going to have another message that says, ‘If you are the kind of person who walks around with your gun and shoots somebody, there’s nothing the law is going to do to stop you,’” said Mary Anne Franks, law professor at University of Miami. “You’re going to have more chances to get away with murder.”
And at least in Tampa, where Bowman is standing trial, prosecutors have seen an uptick in people claiming the defense.
“We are seeing more Stand Your Ground motions,” said a spokesperson for the Tampa prosecutor’s office handling the Bowman case. “We are devoting more resources to defending them.”
The change to the law in June has thrown Florida’s legal system in chaos — judges across the state are conflicted about whether the new burden of proof applies retroactively to cases filed before the revision passed. Two judges in Miami also ruled the state had overstepped its power by revamping the law and found the change unconstitutional. Other judges, however, have allowed cases to move forward under the new standard. The conflict will likely make its way to the state Supreme Court, especially considering the state’s highest court had already ruled that defendants should have the burden of proof in Stand Your Ground cases in 2015. The legislature changed the law against that ruling.
“More people are just like, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ It’s like what is there to lose?”
Tampa prosecutors are arguing the new standard should not apply to Bowman because his case was filed before the change happened. The judge will now decide which standard to use and ultimately whether Bowman is immune to prosecution.
The recent changes to the Stand Your Ground law are the latest in a series of additional protections implemented since George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teengare in Miami in 2013. Although Zimmerman did not claim a Stand Your Ground defense, the jury’s instructions included language from the law.
In 2014, for example, the legislature expanded immunity from people accused of murder or assault to people who fire “warning shots” and made it more difficult to track Stand Your Ground cases by expunging the records of people granted immunity under the law.
Cover image: Grace Miranda and other supporters of Trayvon Martin gather for a rally in front of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's office to ask him to retract his support for Florida's so called 'Stand Your Ground' gun law following the Trayvon Martin killing on April 9, 2012 in Miami, Florida.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)