As Florida’s Stand Your Ground self-defense law goes on trial in the court of public opinion, more lethal force cases – especially those involving race -- are again making national headlines.There’s the case of Marissa Alexander, sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her husband. And there’s the case of Michael Dunn, accused of first-degree murder in the July 30, 2012 shooting death of an unarmed teenager. Mother Jones branded it the "Next Trayvon Martin Case."
Here’s a shocking case has been barely mentioned: The killing of a 32-year-old black man named Everett Gant by 60-year-old Walter Butler in Port St. Joe, an old Florida Panhandle town.
Butler, who allegedly used the n-word to describe both the victim and a child in the neighborhood, is seeking immunity from prosecution under Stand Your Ground. He has a court hearing in September.
The prosecutor, Bob Sombathy, said Butler does not have much to stand on. He said Butler, charged with second-degree murder, "laid in wait" with a .22 rifle for Gant, who was coming over with a friend to discuss Butler's racist comments to a kid in the neighborhood.
"Someone opened the door and Butler shot him in the eye," Sombathy said. "There were no real words exchanged, no threats."
"The below signed affiant states that through his investigation and interview with the suspect, Walton Henry Butler, Butler did admit shooting Everett Gant in the head with a .22 cal. Rifle which caused series [sic] bodily injury. During an interview with Walter Butler he said he shot a “nigger.”
"There had been an incident earlier in the day when Pamela Rogers came to Butler’s apartment with a child and the defendant called the child a nigger and Ms. Rogers became upset and left the residence. Through the investigation it was learned that the defendant had made several racial remarks to the black children in the apartment complex. The victim Everett Gant went to the defendant’s residence to talk with him about the comments when he was shot. The victim Everett Gant was shot in the face causing great bodily harm he was transported to Bay Medical Center where he was listed in stable condition.
"After Walt Butler shot Everett Gant he stated he shut the sliding glass door with Everett Gant lying outside the door, called 911 then finished cooking supper, sat at the kitchen table and began eating.
"When Sheriff Nugent arrived on scene he made contact with Butler by phone, Butler told him to come in he was eating dinner and had put up the gun. Butler was sitting at the table and acted as if it was an inconvenience when he was asked to stand up and handcuffs were put on. He said he did not understand the problem. He had only shot a nigger.
"On September 17, 2012 the victim Everett Gant died from complication from injuries obtained in the above incident."
Caveats: We don't know all the facts of the case, and just because Butler pleads Stand Your Ground doesn't mean he's entitled not to be prosecuted.
But there are grounds (which now sound flimsy, according to the prosecutor) for Butler to plead Stand Your Ground. And even if he doesn't get immunity, Stand Your Ground is still self defense in Florida. It appears on standard jury instruction forms.
From the narrative above, it sounds like Gant was on the porch of Butler's dwelling outside the door and, if Butler somehow successfully (again, it sounds unlikely) argues that Gant tried to enter the residence, the standard jury instructions for Stand Your Ground could give him a defense:
"A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter another’s [dwelling] [residence] [occupied vehicle] is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence....
"'Dwelling” means a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether the building or conveyance is temporary or permanent or mobile or immobile, which has a roof over it, including a tent, and is designed to be occupied by people lodging therein at night."
"The strongest part of the defense case is that Butler is home, and if you believe what he says – that he was threatened by a man who wanted to barge in his home and Butler acted in self defense – then he has a case," Sombathy said. "But the facts don’t play out that way. The witnesses don’t agree."
"This wasn’t a Trayvon Martin deal. Butler was arrested," he added.
Sombathy said he's actually looking forward to a Stand Your Ground hearing because the defendant will have to take the stand, where he can be examined by prosecutors who can use his statements in trial. The fact that a defendant might have to testify in a Stand Your Ground hearing gives a clue as to why Trayvon's shooter, George Zimmerman, didn't request a hearing.
"There's a chance George Zimmerman didn't want to have to testify in court," Sombathy said. "The burden of proof for immunity is on the defendant, so the defendant in some cases has to take the stand."
Beyond the peculiarities of Stand Your Ground More broadly, the case could be a temptation for some to brand the pretty little town of Port St. Joe as a bastion of racists because it's in Deep South Florida's Panhandle. And indeed, Port St. Joe is the town where Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two black men, were wrongly convicted for a murder for which they were nearly executed. They were exonerated thanks in great part due to the Miami Herald's Gene Miller.
Since then, Port St. Joe has gone back to being a sleepy pretty town that only made the national news involved a 2005 bull-shark attack on a Tennessee kid who was surfcasting with bait in his pocket.
A mutual acquaintance who knows the victim, Gant, in this case, said she wants the news media to give "Everett credit for being a well-loved, well-respected young man whose story didn't make the national news and didn't inflame the racist indignation of so many who are so upset today. It might be a good story to tell of how there is so much love shared by many in this country, no matter the race, creed, or color. As bad as things are in certain situations, I want to continue to believe there is still much good too."
** Note: Post is updated with Sombathy's comments, headline changed changed to call this a Stand Your Ground "related" case