A Pinellas County manslaughter trial starting Monday could shape how courts - and state residents - understand Florida's Stand Your Ground law.
Michael Drejka is facing charges for shooting 28-year-old Marquis McGlockton to death in a Clearwater parking lot last July. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri didn't arrest Drejka, citing the Stand Your Ground law and saying it was self-defense.
That decision led to protests and national attention. And after video of the shooting surfaced, supporters of the unarmed black victim blasted the white defendant's argument that he feared for his life.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe eventually charged Drejka with manslaughter.
The trial will be setting important legal precedent in terms of how Stand Your Ground is applied in Florida’s legal system, said Judith Scully, a Stetson University College of Law Professor and coordinator of its social justice advocacy program.
“I mean we’re not just talking about a fist fight here,” she said. “We’re talking about the use of deadly force, even when someone is faced with an individual who is not armed.”
The legal definition of Stand Your Ground means that a person doesn't have to retreat from a conflict. Scully said you can move toward conflict to protect yourself, if you feel threatened.
“Stand Your Ground actually allows for individuals to use force in a situation where they feel they are being threatened in terms of bodily harm or that there is a threat to their life,” she said.
Scully said defendants most often apply Stand Your Ground before trial, asking a judge to drop charges based on a person’s right to protect themselves. In Drejka's case, it will be part of a self-defense argument at trial. Both approaches claim a person doesn’t have to retreat.
Scully said Drejka's defense is similar to one used by George Zimmerman, a Central Florida man who was found not guilty in 2013 for the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Marquis McGlockton, like Martin, was African American. He died after shoving Drejka, who had confronted McGlockton’s girlfriend about parking in a handicapped space outside a convenience store. Drejka legally owned his gun, and had a concealed weapons permit.
Scully said the outcome of this latest case will raise again questions about the racial implications surrounding Stand Your Ground.
“There are community members, elected and appointed officials who believe the law needs to be looked at more carefully in the state, particularly because there are racial implications related to how the (different) Stand Your Ground cases have been playing out,” she said. “This dictates to the public what behavior is acceptable when you find yourself in a conflict.”
Jury selection in the case starts Monday in Pinellas County, and Scully said she hopes interested members of the public watch the case closely. The Stand Your Ground law remains controversial.
“I think we do a lot of armchair analysis of things. I think that concerned citizens who have the time and the resources to actually watch what is happening in the courtroom should do so and that is one of the best mechanisms we have for improving our laws,” Scully said.
“When citizens get involved and they are informed and they understand what is going on, their perspective is so valuable in making sure that we set the proper standards for our community.”