Clearwater, Florida is normally a quiet community that does not appear in the pages of national newspapers or on the nightly news broadcasts. Ordinarily, Clearwater’s “fame” centers on its laid-back lifestyle, pristine beaches, and a reputation for being a destination for vacationers and “snowbirds” seeking warmth in the winter and a place to frolic when the kids are out of school.
That sense of the “normal” and “ordinary” was shattered on Thursday, July 19th of this year when an altercation over a parking spot at a local convenience store escalated into the shooting death of Markeis McGlockton, a Black Clearwater resident.
McGlockton was shot by Michael Drejka, a White resident of Clearwater. McGlockton died at the scene of a single gunshot wound to his chest. That single altercation and one round from a gun shattered the calm of Clearwater and its surrounding environs. That single incident splashed Clearwater, Florida across the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
“Stand Your Ground” Law
In 2005, Florida was the first state in the Union to enact a Stand Your Ground law. Under the law, a person can use lethal force – with no legally imposed duty to “retreat” – if they believe they are placed in danger by another individual.
Specifically, the law states:
A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to
retreat if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to
prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.
(all emphasis added)
In 2012, the stand your ground law was used successfully by accused murderer George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch official who shot and killed teenager Treyvon Martin in Central Florida. A jury acquitted Zimmerman of 2nd Degree Murder based on the law.
In the McGlockton shooting death, the alleged perpetrator, Michael Drejka immediately staked his justification for the shooting on the Stand Your Ground law. Drejka was not arrested at the scene of the shooting. After a short investigation, Drejka was allowed to go free by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
On the date of the incident, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri told news media that, “…based on the ‘stand your ground’ law, the shooting was justified”. According to other sources at the Sheriff’s department, that was the early assessment of others besides the Sheriff – Drejka was justified in taking the action to prevent death or injury to himself.
A Community Reacts – Protests & Vigils
In the days following the shooting, community leaders and activists organized a protest at the site of the altercation and shooting, as well as a vigil at Clearwater’s Mt. Carmel Baptist Church that was attended by more than 150 people.
The vigil and protest at the Baptist Church, organized by the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas County Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., was one of many such events that took place in the aftermath of the shooting. Pastor Carlton Childs, the President of the Upper Pinellas County Ministerial Alliance, spoke forcefully to the gathered crowd:
It was wrong of Mr. Drejka to shoot and kill Markeis. It was wrong for him to
antagonize Britany (the girlfriend of the victim and the object of the shooter’s
initial wrath). It was definitely wrong for Mr. Drejka not to be arrested. We
refuse to remain quiet while laws are being made and constructed to permit
shooting and killing human beings…
The gathering at the Baptist Church also took strong exception with Sheriff Gaultieri’s decision not to arrest Drejka and allowing the shooter to assert, seemingly successfully from the beginning, the controversial Stand Your Ground law. Regarding Drejka’s assertion of protection by the law in question, the Sheriff did refer the matter on the day following the vigil to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s office for further review and final determination.
Officials Have a Change of Mind
During the initial investigation into the shooting, Drejka told detectives that he was “in fear for his life” after McGlockton allegedly pushed him to the ground during their confrontation. At the time, Sheriff Gaultieri stated: “(Drejka) believed that McGlockton was going to come back at him, and he fired in a very short amount of time – four seconds, probably, somewhere in that range. That is within the bookends of Stand Your Ground and within the bookends of force being justified.”
Protesters and McGlockton’s family members were having none of that and said so forcefully in the media and through several days of protests following the shooting. The shooting, which was captured on surveillance video, soon became the focus of local and national media interest and protests. As interest and outrage continued to grow, the Reverend Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network and a lifelong Civil Rights activist, showed up in Clearwater for a protest rally centering on the repeal of the Stand Your Ground law. The Sheriff responded to Sharpton’s criticisms of the law and the department’s embrace of it by telling Sharpton “to go home”.
Three weeks after the controversial “stand your ground” shooting in Clearwater, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney had a change-of-heart and a change of mind. On Monday, August 13th charges of manslaughter were formally filed against Michael Drejka. On that same day, Drejka was arrested and booked into jail for the killing of Markeis McGlockton. Bond on the charges was set at $100,000. As of this writing, Drejka has not posted bail and remains in custody in Pinellas County.
An attorney for McGlockton’s family issued the following statement upon hearing the news of the filed charges and the arrest of Drejka:
My first thought on hearing this news was: ‘It’s about time’. This self-appointed
wannabe cop attempted to hide behind “Stand Your Ground” to defend his
indefensible actions, but the truth has finally cut through the noise. I have full
faith that this truth will prevail to punish this cold-blooded killer…We will continue
to fight until justice is brought for the family of Markeis…
McGlockton’s family also released a statement saying “…the charges provide our family with a small measure of comfort during our time of mourning the death of Markeis”.
Additionally, Sheriff Gaultieri issued a short statement after the filing of charges and the arrest of Michael Drejka: “I support the States Attorney’s decision and will have no further comment as the case continues to work its way through the criminal justice system.”
With the case now pending for further investigation and an eventual trial for Drejka on the filed manslaughter charge, Pinellas-Pasco States Attorney Bernie McCabe told the press on August 13th: “My office reviewed everything, and we filed the charge we think we can prove. I’m comfortable that we moved expeditiously to review the case.”
Unless Drejka decides to plead guilty to the manslaughter charge or some lesser charge, the case is expected to be ready to proceed to trial shortly after the first of next year. Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is likely to continue and grow as protest groups on both sides of the issue continue to speak out, march, and hold rallies for and against the law.
Image credit: Skitterphoto