Florida defense attorneys fear backlash in self-defense cases

With the worldwide press, citizens and celebrities scrutinizing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, criminal defense lawyers statewide fear that the widespread publicity will hamper their efforts in front of judges and juries in upcoming self-defense cases.

Sanford police cited the law in not initially arresting neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, 28, who fatally shot the 17-year-old Trayvon during a scuffle on Feb. 26 in Sanford.

Lawyers in unrelated cases will undoubtedly have to grill potential jurors about the “Trayvon Martin Effect’ or the “Trayvon Factor,” said Nellie King, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“The climate could not be worse for those folks who have been arrested, yet have viable self-defense claims. Florida defense lawyers can only hope that jurists, as well as jurors, tasked with reviewing future Stand Your Ground claims will weigh the case-specific facts before them in an impartial manner against Florida’s law, irrespective of the larger issues being debated in this country,” she said.

Florida’s 2005 law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat when confronted with an attacker, while allowing judges — well before a jury trial — to decide whether a defendant is immune from prosecution because he or she acted in self-defense.

Critics, including many police officers, say the law spurs vigilantes to shoot first and ask question later, while some prosecutors think that juries, not judges, should be the ones to decide on the self-defense issue.

Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon during a sidewalk scuffle inside a gated housing community just north of Orlando. Amid the outcry and rallies, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to review whether there is enough evidence to charge Zimmerman with manslaughter or murder.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice is also examining the case and the police investigation for potential civil rights violations. The governor is also reviewing the law, as is a panel of elected officials empanelled this week by Florida Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Fueled by social media and cable news networks, Trayvon’s death has sparked unprecedented publicity.

Rallies and marches have dominated the headlines. President Obama chimed in, saying if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon.

Countless columnists, commentators and bloggers from across the globe have spotlighted Florida’s self-defense law, one more than 20 similar laws in state across the nation t. More than 50 online petitions asking for the law’s repeal, signed by more than 2 million people, have also been created on Change.org.

In popular culture, Trayvon’s image — and criticism of the law — has exploded into the public conscious. The Miami Heat posed for photos wearing hooded sweatshirts similar to one Trayvon wore the night he was killed.

Even the rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers, playing Monday in Sunrise, referenced the law, donning black hoodies with the phrase “Ode to Trayvon Stand What Ground” printed on the back.

It’s against the backdrop of public backlash that Miami defense attorney David Macey is hoping to get a judge to grant immunity to his client, Cristobal Palacios, on a 2008 murder charge.