Deadly-Force Law Has an Effect, but Florida Hasn't Become the Wild West; State Attorneys Say It Makes Filing Charges More Difficult for Prosecutors

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- Last year, Florida's new "deadly force" law was simply an interesting newspaper story to Doug Freeman.

This year, it may have saved him from prison.

Freeman, owner of Marvin's Electronics in Jacksonville's Murray Hill neighborhood, has claimed self-defense in shooting 26-year-old Vincent Hudson five times in his store on the night of May 31.

Their stories differ on the nature of the confrontation -- it was either an attempted robbery or a request for money -- but Hudson survived and Freeman won't face charges.

The murky details contain one clear point: Florida's legal landscape has changed since Oct. 1, when a law took effect that broadens the legal principle of self-defense.

"I knew about the law, but it's not something you think about on a moment's notice," Freeman said. "It's a good law. It should have been enacted years ago. There has to be a mechanism in place to safeguard average citizens against something like this."

Predictions flew across Florida last summer that the deadly force law would turn the state into a Wild West environment where shootings flared during everyday confrontations. With the law on the books for nine months, prosecutors and defense attorneys say the changes have actually been more subtle.

What's happened, most say, is that more homicides are not being prosecuted or that they result in reduced charges.

"We expected the larger impact to be in trials, with people jumping into court because of shootings and lots of shouting from the rooftops. That's not happening," said Jacksonville lawyer Russell Smith, president-elect of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The real impact has been that it's making filing decisions difficult for prosecutors. It's causing cases to not be filed at all or to be filed with reduced charges."

In Duval County, where this year's homicide epidemic has heightened attention on the 2005 law, State Attorney Harry Shorstein largely agrees. There have been 86 homicides so far this year in the county, compared with 91 for all of last year. Duval has had the highest per-capita murder rate of any Florida county for six straight years.

The law apparently can't be blamed for the homicide binge, Shorstein said, because it has influenced only a handful of homicide or attempted homicide cases. One of those was the Marvin's Electronics shooting. Although Shorstein has publicly sided with Hudson, he said the new law played a role in deciding not to press a case against Freeman.

Shorstein, whose office covers Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, agreed that the law has hindered prosecutors. Although his office has only cited it a few times among this year's homicides, he believes it has had a wider influence that is prevalent, but difficult to document.

"It's caused a general expansion of self-defense, which makes all issues of self-defense more favorable to the defendant or suspect than before," he said. "It's also created a greater propensity to use deadly force than existed before. There's a lesser sensitivity to gun violence and death, and that's not good. The last thing we need in Jacksonville is a greater use of deadly force."

State Attorney John Tanner, whose office covers Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties, said he can't blame the deadly-force law for any increase in homicides in his jurisdiction.

"And I would notice it because I personally review all homicides in the 7th Circuit -- even vehicular," Tanner said. …