In a high-profile example of Florida's controversial self-defense statute known as the "Stand your Ground" law, a judge has dismissed all charges against a man in what was initially considered by prosecutors to be a case worthy of the death penalty.
Judge Richard Oftedahl of the 15th Judicial Circuit last week dismissed two first-degree murder charges against Michael Monahan, 65.
The ruling stated Monahan was justified under Florida Statute 776.013(3), the "Stand your Ground" law, when he shot Raymond Mohlman and Matthew Vittum because he was in fear for his life during an altercation aboard a 35-foot sailboat anchored near Riviera Beach, Florida.
At first glance the case appeared likely to see trial, as there were no weapons on the two dead men and little to go on except Monahan's account. In fact, prosecutors had originally sought the death penalty against Monahan but altered course early in the case.
When Riviera Beach police arrived at the scene on April 3rd, according to the Sun-Sentinel, they found Monahan:
"Paddling his kayak away from the Green Galleon, where Ramie Mohlman and Vittum lay dead. In interviews with police, Monahan said the men had tried to remove him from the sailboat, which he had bought from Mohlman six months earlier for $1,000."
Mohlman, formerly a competitive wrestler who quit his local teaching job in 2010 to spend most of the year in Belize, had previously confronted Monahan for allegedly running up $500 of tickets for registration violations with the sailboat.
Monahan's attorney, however, told the court that Monahan explicitly stated from the outset he was afraid for his life, and felt he had no option other than to defend himself. Mohlman's intent that day, as well as his justification for boarding the vessel, came under the court's scrutiny:
"Witnesses told police that by the time Mohlman boarded the Green Galleon with Vittum on the day they died, his plans were to either evict Monahan from the boat, or to kill him... Monahan said Mohlman never showed him any proof of the tickets and felt cornered when Mohlman and Vittum boarded his boat without his permission. He said he didn't have time to call police."
In addition to Monahan's narrative of events, Mohlman's blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, and Vittum had cocaine, oxycodone, and marijuana in his system when he was killed.
The Assistant State attorney in the case, Jacqui Charbonneau, tried to prevent the court's dismissal by asserting neither of the men Monahan killed were armed, they were shot from 20 feet away, and Monahan admitted neither of them laid a hand on him during the dispute.
The judge countered with the fact that the statute does not call for the assailants to be armed or to commit physical violence, only to have created the perception of imminent violence. The most relevant part of the statute reads:
"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."
This case could already heighten the already tense debate over the "Stand Your Ground" law, which went into effect in Florida in 2005. As of last October, the law had been in effect for five years and was invoked in 93 cases that caused 65 deaths statewide.
For political reasons, gun control advocates may try to tie this case into the recent decision of Florida governor Rick Scott to normalize gun laws across the state by enforcing a law that has already been on the books for decades.
Meanwhile, the debate over "Stand Your Ground" will continue as the press fights it out in the court of public opinion case by case.