In May, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who has taken over the George Zimmerman murder case, rejected the “stand your ground” claim of a 21-year-old Sanfordman who was charged with murder.
A month later, a Seminole County jury acquitted him.
That case, Florida v. Kishawn Jones, is important because it could signal what’s ahead for Zimmerman, the 28-year-old Neighborhood vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old.
Zimmerman is expected to use Florida’s “stand your ground” law to try to clear himself. Passed by the Florida Legislature in 2005, the law grants immunity to anyone who uses deadly force if he has a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily injury.
Zimmerman says he killed Trayvon in self-defense on a rainy February evening in a Sanford gated community after he spotted the Miami Gardens teenager and called the police, describing him as suspicious.
Since Trayvon’s death, there has been an influx of “stand your ground” motions in Seminole County.
“We never had them before the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case,” said Assistant State Attorney John Mannion Jr. “Now, they’re getting to be routine.”
Nelson is the judge who must decide whether Zimmerman deserves immunity. To date, she has held one “stand your ground” hearing — in the case of Jones, a homeless Sanford man who was charged with second-degree murder.
He shot and killed a close friend, 28-year-old Leonard Boone, at a Sanford apartment complex in June 2011 in a dispute over a cheap gun and $20.
Jones was outnumbered: He was confronted by Boone and his brother, Eugene Rouse, according to court records. Rouse had sold Jones a handgun, according to testimony, but Jones still owed him $20.
On the day of the shooting, the brothers began arguing with Jones about the money. They upended the bench where he was lying, dumping him on the ground. Rouse then snatched the disputed gun from Jones and, according to a witness, shook it at him. Rouse then walked away with it.
Jones followed, agreed to hand over some money, got back the gun and headed back to his bench, according to witness statements.
The two brothers then began to taunt Jones “and threatened to start a ‘war’ with him,” Nelson wrote in her May 4 order denying the defendant immunity.
Boone charged at Jones, lifting a glass-top table as if to flip it onto the defendant, the judge wrote, and Jones opened fire, shooting Boone three times.
On April 27, at Jones’ “stand your ground” hearing, defense attorney Dan Geraghty put the defendant and two witnesses who were in a nearby apartment on the stand.
In her five-page order, Nelson made it clear that she did not believe the defendant and at least one of the other witnesses. Boone’s actions, she wrote, would not have caused a reasonable person to believe that he was about to commit a forcible felony.
A month later, a Seminole County jury acquitted Jones after listening to him explain why he opened fire.
“We argued to the jury that it was pure reaction,” said Geraghty, “that Leonard was about to grab the gun.”
It’s not surprising, Geraghty said, that the jury came to a different conclusion than the judge.
That’s because a jury is required to measure the evidence one way: Has the state proved the defendant’s guilt beyond every reasonable doubt?
And the judge must rely on a different standard: By a preponderance of evidence, has the defendant proved that he had a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily injury?
Nelson, Geraghty said, “followed the law to a T.”
Another defendant on Nelson’s docket, James Fraleigh, earlier filed a “stand your ground” motion, but that hearing has not yet taken place. He’s charged with aggravated battery.
In the George Zimmerman case, defense attorney Mark O’Mara has said he expects to ask for a “stand your ground” hearing after the first of the year, once he finishes deposing witnesses and evaluating evidence