By a 24-12 vote, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved changes to the state's "stand your ground" law -- which are endorsed by the National Rifle Association but which opponents argue would "stack the deck against justice for the dead," especially if the victim is a racial minority.
The legislation shifts the burden of proof in a pre-trial hearing from defendants to prosecutors, requiring state attorneys to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" why a defendant could not claim "stand your ground" in self-defense cases.
Its prospects at becoming law are unknown, because a House version -- which required the demonstration of a higher burden of proof from prosecutors -- unexpectedly stalled in November in committee, a rare defeat for a priority of the NRA.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- sponsor of SB 344 -- said again Thursday he wants for House leadership to take up his bill directly on the House floor. It's unclear whether House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, intends to exercise that option.
Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams told the Herald/Times that “the House will take up the bill for consideration when it comes over from the Senate,” but it hasn’t been decided whether it will be brought immediately to the floor for a vote or referred to committees.
Bradley said he “anticipates” a floor vote in the House.
"I've gotten general indications that's where it's headed," he said. "I'm confident there's a majority of House members who would agree with the majority of the Senate that this is the right public policy for the state of Florida."
Bradley sought the changes to "stand your ground" in light of a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that he has argued "overreached" the court's powers.
In the case known as Bretherick v. Florida, five of seven justices ruled defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity, but Bradley contends the justices "misinterpreted legislative intent" of the decade-old law.
Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee.
"We're getting it right today," Bradley said on the Senate floor, adding that "the state should have the burden of proof in criminal prosecution from beginning to end."
Sen. Gwen Margolis, of Miami, was the only Democrat to join the chamber's Republican majority in passing the bill. She changed her vote afterward, but the official record reflects the result as 24-12 with her as a “yes” vote.
Prior to the floor vote, several Democratic senators invoked the names of high-profile victims -- including Trayvon Martin -- in expressing their opposition to "stand your ground" and Bradley's proposed changes, but Republicans said Trayvon's case had nothing to do with the law.
Trayvon, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford four years ago. Zimmerman was later acquitted.
Shifting the burden of proof in self-defense cases would require prosecutors to "somehow prove a negative; that there was no threat, no reason to be fearful," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.
"In these cases, you only have one person’s side of the story; it's the last man standing," Thompson said. "Trayvon couldn’t tell his side of the story because he was dead. So we only have the version that was presented by the individual who hunted him down, who tracked him, who engaged him in an altercation."
Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said the enforcement of “stand your ground” has already proven to have wide disparities depending on the race of the victim, and this legislation could further hurt the chances for minority victims to get justice.
She cited statistics from the American Bar Association that she said show a white shooter of a black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found justified in use of deadly force than if the victim was white.
Bradley said, "it's simply incorrect to suggest this bill would result in otherwise guilty individuals going free."
He described his measure as "procedural" and said if prosecutors have sufficient evidence to prove a case before a jury at trial, they should have no problem convincing a judge in a preliminary hearing.
But Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the hearing happens when "the case is still ripe; they haven't even got all the evidence in."
"You’re getting the immunity, the least you can do is put on some evidence of it," he said.
He also criticized Bradley for citing the dissent of Justices Charles T. Canady and Ricky Polston as part of his rationale for seeking to change the law.
"When I was in law school, the dissent was what we called: 'What the law is not,' " Smith said.