CLEARWATER (CNN) – Jury selection got underway Monday for the manslaughter trial of a Florida man who fatally shot an unarmed black man last summer outside a grocery store, sparking a nationwide debate on the state’s “stand your ground” law.
The case dates to last July when Michael Drejka, then 47, got into an argument with Britany Jacobs, then 24, who was parked in a handicapped-accessible spot outside a grocery store, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said.
Markeis McGlockton, Jacobs’ 28-year-old boyfriend, and their 5-year-old son Markeis Jr. were inside the Clearwater, Florida, store at the time. McGlockton then went outside, walked over to Drejka and forcibly pushed him, causing him to fall to the ground.
While sitting on the ground, Drejka pulled out his gun and shot McGlockton, who had started to turn away, surveillance video shows. The entire incident lasted just a few seconds.
After the shooting, Drejka was cooperative with police and had a valid Florida concealed weapons license, police said. And although he started the argument and escalated the encounter with a gun, he was not initially arrested in the killing because the Pinellas County Sheriff said the state’s “stand your ground” law appeared to give him immunity.
“He felt, after being slammed to the ground, that the next thing was that he was going to be further attacked by McGlockton,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at the time.
A month later, though, the State Attorney charged Drejka with manslaughter. He pleaded not guilty and was released from jail on $100,000 bail last September.
The trial is likely to hinge on Drejka’s expected self-defense argument. In a jailhouse interview with WTSP last September, Drejka said he was “very scared” during the incident with McGlockton.
“I’ve never been confronted like that, never been assaulted like that, if you will, ever,” Drejka said.
McGlockton’s death brought renewed scrutiny to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which says that a person has no duty to retreat and has the right to use deadly force if he “reasonably believes” that doing so will prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.
In initially not charging Drejka, Sheriff Gualtieri said the law created a very high standard of proof for making an arrest when someone claims they were standing their ground.
“Nowhere else is there anything like this in criminal law where somebody asserts something and the burden then shifts to the other person,” Gualtieri said. “That’s a very heavy standard and it puts the burden on the state.”
The law played a prominent role in George Zimmerman’s killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. In that case, Zimmerman confronted Martin in a neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, and then fatally shot him in what he said was self-defense.
Zimmerman ultimately waived his right to a “stand your ground” pretrial immunity hearing, and his attorney instead argued to a jury that he acted in self-defense. The jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represented both Martin and McGlockton, told CNN last year that the two cases had similarities.
Drejka was “the initial aggressor” and was acting as a “self-appointed cop wannabe” in hounding McGlockton’s girlfriend about the parking space, even as she had two young children in the car with her, he told CNN.
“We have to remember this is a strange man who approaches a mother in the car with her two toddlers in the back seat,” Crump said last year.
Crump said the “stand your ground” law was troubling for many people of color.
“(The law says) that you can pick a confrontation. You can be the initial aggressor. You kill the unarmed black person. And then you say, ‘Oh, it was self-defense. I was standing my ground.’ And you get to go home and sleep in your bed at night,” he said.
Defendant has a history of confrontations
Drejka’s defense may ultimately take a similar form as Zimmerman’s.
Drejka’s attorneys said he will not pursue a “stand your ground” pretrial hearing to gain immunity, but will instead make the case to jurors that he acted in self-defense, CNN affiliate WFTS reported.
Also relevant will be Drejka’s history of threatening drivers, including in one similar instance at the same grocery store, which are detailed in documents from the Pinellas County Circuit Court.
Three months prior to the shooting, a man named Richard Kelly told a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office detective he was confronted by Drejka at the same Circle A Food Store where McGlockton was killed. The documents said Drejka was upset because Kelly parked in a handicapped-accessible spot.
The exchange between the two became very loud and Kelly said at some point during the argument Drejka told him he was going to shoot him, documents said. Drejka then went to his car and was rummaging around the center console when Kelly left and drove away, the documents said. Kelly, who is black, also said Drejka, who is white, yelled racial slurs at him.
Court documents said Drejka also complained to Kelly’s employer, AA Cut-Rate Septic Tank Service. He contacted the owner, John Tyler, and told him he was lucky he didn’t blow his employee’s head off, the documents said.
In that jailhouse interview last year, Drejka admitted he becomes frustrated when he sees people misuse handicapped parking spaces. A high school sweetheart, who is now deceased, became handicapped after an accident as a teenager, and his mother-in-law is handicapped, Drejka said.
“It’s always touched a nerve with me … the way they’re abused and used,” he said.
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