TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott's "Stand Your Ground" task force met for the first time and vowed to conduct a fair examination of the controversial law highlighted by the death of Trayvon Martin.
The 19-member task force met in Tallahassee Tuesday amid charges that charges it's biased in favor of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. The law allows people to use deadly force and avoid prosecution if they feel a serious threat as George Zimmerman claimed after shooting Trayvon Martin.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who's leading the task force, blasted criticism about the makeup of the task force and whether it can fairly evaluate the law. Four members of the panel voted for the bill when it passed the Legislature in 2005.
"Out of the 19 total members on this task force, I am unaware of the other 15 members' position on this law or if they favor or disfavor gun laws. So it is a mischaracterization for anyone to presume that this task force is not balanced," said Carroll.
She insisted the task force is balanced based on the members' racial backgrounds and experience. The panel includes law enforcement, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and lawmakers.
Carroll emphasized the new group will focus on the "Stand Your Ground" law but also consider other laws affecting public safety.
"This task force is not here to try the Zimmerman-Martin case. We are charged to review the public safety law and make recommendations. This law is not about race. This law is not specific to any one area in our state or person. It can apply to any Floridian in any area of the state."
The panel did not take any testimony from people on Tuesday, but plans to hear from citizens in future meetings around the state.
Sen. Chris Smith intends to testify. He released the results of his own "Stand Your Ground" task force on Monday and attended this hearing of the Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection. Smith distributed his group's findings and recommendations to the governor's task force.
Sen. Smith calls the task force an imperfect group based on its makeup but says it includes some very good members, including Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Smith says he hopes attorneys like Rundle help the group study the law from a legal perspective and not a political one.
"Hopefully the task force will listen to those members who are going to take a legal view of the statute and not just a political view. You have some political appointees on there and people that may have a political agenda but I hope they take a legal agenda and really look at the law from a legal standpoint and how it's being used and misused in the state of Florida."
Smith says there's plenty of evidence that the law needs clarification.
"You have prostitutes shooting their johns and availing themselves to this law. You have gang members having shootouts and availing themselves of this law. You have people chasing someone a block down the street stabbing someone to death and availing themselves of this law. I think those points need to be clarified."
Criminal Defense Attorney Mark Seiden of Miami praises Gov. Scott for assembling the task force.
"I think that when a matter of great public concern like this arises, the governor was very wise to appoint a task force to examine the law and other laws relating to self defense and firearms and get the view of the people to see if there need to be any changes. I think it's a good process. It's transparent, it's open to the public and I look forward to participating in it."
Other members vow to lead a fair review.
"I have an open mind. We're here to do the work of the people from the state of Florida and hopefully we'll have an open, honest dialogue about the provisions of the current law and make some appropriate decisions as we move forward," said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.
Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, echoes those sentiments.
"I'm going to try to remain open and objective. But I was in Sanford, Florida last week and I got an earful about racial profiling and how the law has been abused. I think there are some grounds for that, so we want to go around the state of Florida and take testimony and if that's the majority of the opinion, I think we ought to tweak the law to make sure it's an effect but it's not abused like I think some people are abusing it today."