“Stand Your Ground” and other self-defense laws have been at the center of national debate in recent months, and Florida’s controversial statute will now be the subject of a course at Florida Atlantic University (FAU).
Read more: New PSA re-enacts Trayvon Martin shooting
FAU's School of Public Administration is offering the course this fall as an elective at the university's Boca Raton campus. Program coordinator Richard Mangan says the idea for the new course was prompted by national publicity surrounding the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012 and the subsequent murder trial of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman.
Although Zimmerman -- who was charged with second-degree murder -- ultimately did not claim self-defense under “Stand Your Ground," the incident and the handling of the investigation immediately following Martin’s death brought the controversial law under widespread scrutiny.
Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in July.
FAU offers a degree program in public safety, and Mangan said the national conversation surrounding self-defense laws is a great reason to offer students a way to learn about such an important public safety issue.
“Our original thought came from the fact that Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law has gotten so much national attention,” Mangan said. “And since 26 states have variations of this law, it has become an important issue of public safety. The law has national ramifications.”
In general, “Stand Your Ground” laws provide that use of deadly force is justifiable in self-defense when someone is in reasonable fear of injury or death. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law has been particularly controversial because it doesn’t require people to retreat before forcibly defending themselves. When it passed in 2005, Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law was the first of its kind.
Mangan said the new course will tackle some of the controversial and emotional issues that are wrapped into these self-defense laws, including gun control and what defines a “justifiable use of force.”
Criminal defense attorney Darren Kavinoky says that, while education is always encouraged, issues like this one have to be taught in a very responsible manner.
“The danger of a course like this is that people may be motivated to learn how they can avoid prosecution -- what they can say or do to fire with impunity, just like many suggested Zimmerman did after he shot Trayvon Martin,” Kavinoky said. “A deep-dive into the fine points of ‘Stand Your Ground’ could allow some to use it as a ‘sword’ and not the ‘shield’ it was intended to be.”
Kavinoky says one of the initial criticisms of Zimmerman was the training he had previously received -- some questioned whether he knew what to say to police in order to take advantage of a defense he wasn’t actually entitled to use.
“There’s always a danger that people are going to use education for evil rather than good,” Kavinoky said. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to teach kids chemistry. Anything that encourages a real dialogue is a great thing, but it just has to be done responsibly.”
Mangan said despite the political firestorm "Stand Your Ground" laws have sparked, the FAU course has no political agenda. He says the point is to teach students about the law and why it’s considered controversial.
“There is so much passion behind these laws, and the stance people take on them is most often an emotional one,” Mangan said. “We aren’t offering this course because we think the law is flawed or because we agree with it. We want to inform students what the debate is all about and both sides of the issue. We don’t care what side students are on.”
Mangan said there are also unresolved issues related to the law -- such as whether a convicted felon should be able to use “Stand Your Ground” as a defense -- that are for Florida’s Supreme Court to address. He explained that this is something the course will cover -- the discrepancies in the law that have led different courts to rule differently on the same issue.
The course will be taught by Frank de la Torre, the chief assistant public defender for Florida's Broward County. According to Mangan, De La Torre has litigated six "Stand Your Ground" hearings -- three successful and three unsuccessful. De La Torre has also been an adjunct professor for FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice since 1995.
“I’m encouraged by the fact [the course] is being taught by a public defender,” Kavinoky said. “This means he understands the issues involved in self-defense cases and he takes the side of the defense, which isn’t often a popular stance to take, especially regarding ‘Stand Your Ground.’”
The first class is scheduled to take place Tuesday night and more than 60 students are signed up to attend, Mangan said.