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U.S. Senate panel takes on Stand Your Ground controversy

Statements made during a U.S. Senate hearing that Stand Your Ground laws actually benefit African Americans are “ludicrous,” Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee said after attending Tuesday’s panel in Washington, D.C.

Williams, chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, is aiming to repeal the law in Florida and will be pushing the effort during a House hearing Nov. 7th.

“The argument that a number of crimes are committed in minority communities and African Americans should appreciate that Stand Your Ground has allowed them to get off or not be prosecuted for committing murder is embarrassing,” said Williams, referring to comments made by the law's supporters during the packed U.S. Senate hearing.

Legislators, criminal justice experts, advocates and the mothers of two sons slain in the name of self-defense gave widely different interpretations of the laws, their racial ramifications and the need for changes during the panel.

Williams didn't speak at the hearing but Sen. Dick Durbin raised the same point.

He said he couldn't understand those who defend Stand Your Ground laws "by arguing that African Americans should celebrate these laws,” a comment that raised the ire of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz countered that calling Stand Your Ground laws “veiled racism” may be a “convenient political attack” but it’s “not borne out by the facts remotely.”

He said that “a great many African American families” who have been victims of violent crimes use the law to defend themselves or their families. And in 2004, he said, a then-Illinois state senator, Barack Obama, recommended expansion of a self-defense law in that state.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground measure passed in 2005 and since then, more than two dozen states have passed various versions of the law, which removed a citizen’s “duty to retreat” in most public confrontations.

The law became even more controversial in 2012, when Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager from Miami Gardens.

Zimmerman was acquitted earlier this year. Cruz said the law was not used in the Zimmerman case but other panelists noted the jury was instructed to consider Stand Your Ground when reaching a verdict.

Durbin said Stand Your Ground "is an invitation for confrontation."

David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said Florida is "changing a flawed law."But his statement is likely premature.

A proposal sponsored by state Sens. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, would require guidelines and training protocol for neighborhood watch programs.

It won bipartisan support on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it's too soon to tell if a similar proposal would win support in the House.

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, the House point person on Stand Your Ground, has said he opposes any changes to the law.

The most dramatic arguments at Tuesday's U.S. Senate hearing came from Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Lucia Holman McBath, the mother of Jacksonville teen, Jordan Russell Davis, who was murdered last year.

Trayvon was “simply going to get a drink and some candy,” Fulton said. “That tells me right there, his mentality. That tells me that he was not going to get cigarettes or bullets or condoms or other items of that nature. “Trayvon was minding his own business," Fulton said.

McBath, who fought back tears, told the panel that her 17-year-old son Jordan Russell Davis, was shot and killed nearly a year ago when Michael David Dunn, 46, allegedly opened fire on a Dodge Durango with four teenagers inside after complaining of their loud music.

McBath told the panel that Dunn was “empowered” by the Stand your Ground law. "I am here to tell you there was no ground to stand. There was no threat. No one was trying to invade his home, his vehicle, nor threatened him or his family."