A Florida appeals court is denying a Jacksonville man’s legal appeals to invoke the controversial “stand your ground” law over the death of his girlfriend, the latest case to define limits on claiming that a killing might be justified as self defense.
In a brief written decision, the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee agreed with a lower circuit judge’s order that Lee Rodarte Jr., 32, was not entitled to immunity under the law in an ongoing second-degree murder trial involving the August 2017 death of his girlfriend and restaurant coworker, Savannah Page Gold, 21.
Citing the self-defense law, Rodarte’s lawyer said the two fought in a vehicle: “In pain and fearing imminent serious bodily harm, the defendant grabbed Ms. Gold’s neck,” court records said. During the struggle, “the defendant heard and felt a pop in Ms. Gold’s neck.”
A pretrial hearing in the criminal case against Rodarte was scheduled for Tuesday in Duval Circuit Court. The case has been moving slowly through the system, partly due to limits imposed by the pandemic.
Rodarte is also charged with abusing a dead body and tampering with evidence. Police said Rodarte led Jacksonville police to Gold’s body, which had been burned and was wrapped in a plastic sheet and bound with duct tape, at the bottom of a retention pond. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The appeals decision, handed down last week, is the latest example of the legal system setting limits of “stand your ground” defenses in courtrooms. Invoking the 2005 state law has become a common strategy in murder cases across Florida, said Nicholas Dorsten, a trial lawyer in Clearwater.
To qualify for immunity in Florida under the law, a person must prove he or she “reasonably believed it was necessary to use force to prevent death or great bodily harm.” The circuit judge in Rodarte’s case cited “clear and convincing evidence” that did not apply, and the appeals court said “competent, substantial evidence” supported the trial judge’s decision.
“If someone is pushing you or punching you, it doesn’t mean it’s a death sentence for that person,” Dorsten said.
Police said surveillance video from the restaurant parking lot in Rodarte’s case showed Gold parking her car then climbing into Rodarte’s vehicle nearby. After about 15 minutes, the video showed what appeared to be a struggle, before Rodarte was seen driving away from the scene. He was arrested three days later. His lawyer is presently asking the judge to throw out evidence recovered from Rodarte’s cell phone.
Florida became the principal “stand your ground” state in 2005 and has been the model and leading innovator ever since.
More than two dozen states now have some form of the law. Many also do not feature a “duty to retreat” clause, allowing a gunman to shoot someone without attempting to flee first.
Since Florida passed its law, there has been a 75% increase in justifiable homicide cases, said Kenneth Nunn, an associate professor of law at the University of Florida and an associate director of its criminal justice center.
There also have been recent efforts to expand the use of the self-defense law in Florida and elsewhere.
Last year Gov. Ron DeSantis drafted legislation that would expand “stand your ground” law’s “forcible felonies” to include vandalism, burglary or looting near a disorderly protest. Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin and Sen. Danny Burgess, both Republican lawmakers, proposed “anti-mob” legislation recently, but it does not include any expansion of the self-defense law.
“Stand your ground” made its way into public consciousness after its use arose in defense of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of second-degree murder in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
The controversial self-defense law fell under scrutiny again in 2018 in the case of Markeis McGlockton, who was shot at a Clearwater convenience store where he and his son stopped to get snacks. The gunman claimed legal protections under the law but was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Last week a Baker County man, who shot his 31-year-old lover in the chest four times in 2018, received a one-year jail sentence for tampering with evidence following his “stand your ground” claim.
Under Florida’s law, if a person were killed, it’s up to the living party to prove he or she had a reasonable fear of death, said Dorsten, the lawyer. Video evidence can help or hurt, depending on how convincingly it conveys a defendant’s reasonable fear, he said.
Trials have been halted in Duval County since the onset of the pandemic, said Rodarte’s attorney, Alan Chipperfield. He said Rodarte’s trial date may be set in the coming weeks or the case could stall for months.
If found guilty of the charges, Rodarte could face life in prison.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.