A Florida judge dismissed murder charges under the state’s Stand Your Ground law for a man who shot dead a mentally ill acquaintance after he told him he was going to beat him up.
In a six-page order issued last week, Judge John K. Stargel said James Robert Wagner was immune from charges under the Stand Your Ground law that gained national notoriety after the death of Trayvon Martin. Under the law, Wagner had no duty to attempt retreat in any place he had a right to be before using deadly force if he reasonably feared great bodily harm or death.
The man Wagner shot was Billy Ray Elkins, a tenant in a building where Wagner had been performing maintenance who his mother said has bipolar disorder. Wagner had some reason to worry about unpleasant encounters with Elkins. Wagner had heard from others that Elkins had a reputation for outbursts, including “loud obscenities,” gesturing wildly and aggressiveness. Elkins lived with his mother, who was called whenever he became aggressive, and was “usually able to calm Mr. Elkins down.”
A week before the incident, Wagner said he witnessed an outburst by Elkins when he went to his apartment to conduct an inspection with the property manager. Elkins temporarily blocked the two from leaving the apartment, but he let them go after Elkins called his mother. Elkins then followed Wagner to his car and threatened to beat him and “make you my bitch,” according to the order. Elkins’ mother later told Wagner that he should not return to the apartment, because Elkins might try to “beat the shit” out of him. There is no indication that Elkins contacted police at any point, and an officer told reporters at the time that there had been no reported disputes between the two men and was surprised the encounter turned deadly.
A week later, Wagner was doing work outside another unit when Elkins pulled up in his car and allegedly mumbled something about running Elkins over with his car, began to drive away, and then drove forward again to say he was going to beat him up. There is a dispute about whether Elkins had begun to get out of his car, with a witness testifying that Elkins was sitting in the car with the door closed when he was shot, but a blood splatter analysis suggesting the door was partially open. Wagner pulled a gun out of his car and shot him dead.
Only after shooting Elkins, returning his gun to his car, and closing the car door did Wagner attempt to dial 911. This particular incident took place outside a school. At least one student and the principal witnessed the incident.
Given Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the judge found that Wagner was justified because he had no duty to take other measures before immediately turning to his gun. Even prosecutors said they would not seek an appeal. Brian Haas, a spokesman for the State Attorney’s office, told ThinkProgress success was very unlikely, “based on the law as it is.” The law allows defendants to seek immunity from charges before the trial begins. Granting that immunity means not just that Wagner cannot be convicted for the charge of second-degree murder; it also means he is immune from all criminal prosecution related to the shooting, and could also be immune from a civil suit.
Florida lawmakers have continued to reject moves to repeal or limit the law, and have instead advanced a bill this year to expand Stand Your Ground immunity to warning shots.