Picture this: two men board the sailboat of a third man and they have a quarrel. The two men are not armed with any weapons but at least one of the men is heavily intoxicated. The boat’s owner shoots and kills both men. He later says he felt threatened. The shooter is charged with murder. Does he have a defense? Can he claim self-defense at trial? In the case of Michael Monahan in Palm Beach County, he doesn’t have to...because the charges were dismissed.
In Florida, it is a defense to a crime, such as battery or even murder, if the defendant acted in necessary self-defense. However, in order to assert this defense and win, a defendant has to face a jury trial. Having six jurors decide your fate is a scenario most people don’t want to have to endure. There is an awful lot riding on the line in a self-defense murder trial. If the jury agrees that it was self-defense, the defendant walks out of the courtroom a free man. If the jury disagrees, he could face life in prison or even the death penalty under some circumstances.
Yet, self-defense isn’t the only option these days. In 2005, the Florida legislature enacted the “Stand your Ground” statute. The “Stand your Ground” law states: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” While similar to the notion of self-defense, the main difference under the law is that Stand your Ground isn’t technically a defense at all. If a person has a cognizable claim under Stand your Ground, he can file a motion to dismiss the charges. Motions to dismiss are decided by a judge, not a jury. If he’s successful on the motion, that means that the charges are dropped altogether without ever having to go to trial.
That’s exactly what happened in Palm Beach County with the case of Michael Monahan, the sailboat owner. And similar Stand your Ground motions are being filed all across Florida. It gives a defendant a second bite at the apple, because even if he loses the Stand your Ground motion, he still gets a trial and an opportunity to assert self-defense to a jury. The drawback? If a defendant files a Stand your Ground motion and has a hearing on the motion, if he chooses to testify at that hearing, anything he says can later be used against him at trial. But many defendants are finding that a small price to pay for the possibility of a dismissal of all charges and never having to go through the harrowing ordeal of a jury trial. One such defendant is James Patrick Wonder, who is facing manslaughter charges in Broward County in the death of an off-duty federal customs agent during a road-rage incident. Time will tell if he is successful in his Stand your Ground motion to dismiss. But if not, there’s always a self-defense argument at trial.