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Fla. Cases Test 'Stand Your Ground' Law's Limits

Since the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin made Florida's Stand Your Ground law the subject of national debate, one of the legislators who helped write it, Rep. Dennis Baxley, has been adamant in his belief that the law simply doesn't apply in this case.

The law allows people who feel threatened to use deadly force in self-defense and says they have no duty to retreat. There is evidence from the 911 calls that George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, allegedly in self-defense, might have followed him.

"There's nothing in the statute that provides for any kind of aggressive action in terms of pursue and confront," says Baxley, a Republican.

But in practice, Florida courts have allowed a Stand Your Ground defense in cases where there have been chases and pursuits.

In Tampa, a judge is considering whether to dismiss a manslaughter charge against 71-year-old Trevor Dooley. He got into an argument with a neighbor, David James, about whether a teenager should be allowed to skateboard on a basketball court across the street from Dooley's house. Dooley walked from his home with a gun in his pants to the park where James was playing basketball. The argument escalated. Dooley took out the gun and, after a scuffle, shot and killed James.

Dooley's lawyer, Ron Tulin, believes Dooley was acting in self-defense.

"Everybody kind of tells a different story," Tulin says, "but the common denominator and the common thread in this case is that each witness testified that Mr. Dooley had walked away and was walking back to his house when Mr. James crossed the basketball court."

Those kind of details: how witnesses describe what happened, the conduct of those involved before the confrontation, the relative size of the people involved and even their prior relationship, all can have a bearing on the judge's decision — whether to dismiss charges based on Stand Your Ground.

In the state's largest prosecutor's office, Miami-Dade County, the chief assistant state attorney, Kathleen Hoague, is appealing a recent Stand Your Ground case where the charges were dismissed. Hoague says it involves Greyston Garcia, a man who chased a suspected burglar for more than a block before catching him and stabbing him to death.

"He came from a position of safety and pursued this person," Hoague says. "The real issue is what happened at the time that they actually came together. But certainly it wasn't a situation where our dead person attacked him."

In her order, Judge Beth Bloom wrote that Garcia was, "well within his rights to pursue the victim and demand the return of his property."

There have been other Stand Your Ground cases where a chase or pursuit didn't stop the judge from dismissing the charges.

In 2009, a judge dismissed assault charges against a Miami man who bolted out of his home and fired his rifle at two electric company employees. That same year, in another case, a high-speed chase involving two armed motorists ended with one of the drivers dead from gunshot wounds.

In that instance, a judge dismissed the charges because of Stand Your Ground.

In the Garcia case, Hoague believes the pursuit is evidence the defendant wasn't acting in self-defense. But generally speaking, she says the mere fact that there is a pursuit doesn't rule out using a Stand Your Ground defense.

"You could have a situation where you're pursuing someone and, when you finally catch up with them or the confrontation finally occurs, what if this person completely overpowers you," she says. "There are all kinds of things that can happen."

Those are scenarios state prosecutor Angela Corey will have to consider as she decides whether to charge Zimmerman in the shooting death of Martin.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.