By David Ovalle, Miami Herald (TNS)
MIAMI — Tyrone Smith knew how to use his fists. Around his Miami Gardens neighborhood, the 19-year-old was known as the “Karate Kid” because he taught local children self-defense and how to stand up to bullies.
But when Smith felt insulted and began shouting at neighbor Jason Kinsey, the confrontation did not end in fisticuffs. Instead, Kinsey, 20, fatally shot the unarmed teenager — claiming he was defending himself against the martial arts expert.
A judge agreed. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas last month ruled that Kinsey did act in self-defense, saying prosecutors are “discounting the enormity of Smith’s rage and the level of physical skill that Smith possessed as compared to Kinsey.”
The legal fight, however, is far from over. The state attorney’s office is now appealing the judge’s decision to dismiss the second-degree murder charge.
For prosecutors and Smith’s family, the case encapsulates all that is wrong with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: Smith was unarmed, challenging Kinsey to an “old-school” fistfight only after being repeatedly provoked.
“People use that to get away with murder,” said Smith’s grandmother, Cynthia Hill. “The law needs to be modified.”
Travares Daniels, Smith’s uncle, said: “I know if a jury had heard this, he’d be going to jail.”
But for Kinsey and his defense team, the law worked exactly as lawmakers designed it. Kinsey was the bullied victim and had no duty to retreat. His fear of “great bodily harm” was real, even if Smith had no weapon in his hands, said attorney Richard Gregg.
“This case shows how the Stand Your Ground law is supposed to work and does work,” Gregg said. “It’s textbook.”
Smith is still facing an illegal firearm and evidence-tampering charge. He is under house arrest as prosecutors appeal.
Passed in 2005, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat in the face of a mortal threat. And more vexing for prosecutors, the law also gave judges more leeway to throw out criminal charges — before a jury trial — if they deem that someone acted in self-defense.
Critics say the law promotes a shoot-first vigilante mentality that allows criminals a pass on justice.
The law came under national scrutiny in the racially charged case of George Zimmerman, a Sanford man who claimed self-defense in killing unarmed Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012. The neighborhood watch member claimed he shot only after Martin attacked him first, repeatedly bashing his head on the ground.
Police initially cited the law in not charging Zimmerman. Prosecutors eventually charged him with second-degree murder. Jurors acquitted Zimmerman.
Zimmerman declined to ask a judge for immunity. Plenty of other defendants across Florida have gone straight to judges, with some successes.
In Miami-Dade, Kinsey’s was at least the fifth murder case to be thrown out directly by a judge.
–– Luis Martinez, who fatally shot a pipe-wielding, drug-addled attacker during a wild confrontation on a sidewalk in North Miami-Dade in September 2009.
––Dennis Sosa Palma, who fatally stabbed his brother after he said the man drunkenly attacked him with a knife in May 2010 inside their Little Havana efficiency.
––Alexander Lima-Lopez, who shot and killed an attacker who had beaten him at his Hialeah home in April 2011.
––Greyston Garcia, who chased down a thief who had broken into his truck and stolen his radio in Little Havana in January 2011. He felled the thief with one fatal knife thrust to the chest.
A judge ruled that Garcia acted in self-defense because the thief swung a bag filled with heavy car radios, citing a medical examiner’s testimony that “a 4-6 pound bag of metal being swung at one’s head would lead to serious bodily injury or death.”
Prosecutors wanted to appeal the decision but Garcia was killed by random gunfire outside a Liberty City convenience store.
The State Attorney’s Office hasn’t had success with self-defense appeals.
Last year, the 3rd District Court of Appeals granted immunity to Gabriel Mobley, an Opa-locka man who claimed self-defense after fatally shooting two unarmed attackers outside a Northwest Miami-Dade Chili’s restaurant. The court overturned a Miami-Dade judge’s refusal to throw out the case.
The state attorney’s office says the Mobley ruling has hampered prosecutors’ ability to even file charges in the first place against people who have fatally shot unarmed people. That was the case in at least three killings here in recent months.
“The Stand Your Ground law and the appellate decisions have cheapened human life,” said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague. “The law encourages people to arm themselves and settle differences with deadly force. You can set up a confrontation, arm yourself and legally get away with murder these days.”
Kinsey had graduated from high school but was not working in order to care of his cancer-stricken brother, according to his lawyer. Though he was looking for a job, Kinsey mostly played video games and hung out with friends outside his home.
Smith was an avid skateboarder and artist who was studying to be an electrician, according to relatives. He has also studied karate and volunteered to work with local children at nearby Rainbow Park.
“I have never seen him raise his voice. I have never seen him get upset,” neighbor Valisha Robinson said in a deposition. “The only thing I’ve ever seen this boy do was, you know, play with the little kids, teach the little kids how to defend themselves.”
He was also new to the neighborhood, having just moved into his sister’s house. The week before the shooting, he complained to his grandmother that Kinsey and his friends had been heckling him as he walked by on his way to the park.
“He wasn’t a person who liked to argue with people,” Hill said. “He said, ‘There’s these boys always bothering me.'”
On Aug. 24, 2013, Smith was walking past Kinsey’s home, where he was hanging out with a pal when somebody said something “vulgar” to him. Whatever the comment, it set Smith off and he “prodded the defendant to exit his property and fight him,” prosecutor Denise Georges wrote in a court filing.
Smith eventually walked away. Moments later, Kinsey said, he called a friend, who brought him a handgun, and then opened the house’s gate “to entice Smith to enter his property.”
Later, Smith walked past again, this time accompanied by several children, including his 5-year-old nephew, carrying mats and other karate equipment. Smith, in a rage and using profanity, repeatedly challenged Kinsey to fight.
“Bring your ass right here,” Smith hollered to the armed man. “I’m in college, what the f — you doing … you sitting there all day, every day … when can I get my one-on-one.”
According to prosecutors’ account, a neighbor implored Kinsey: “Take it to the old school. He just want to fight. Put down your gun and fight like a man.”
Smith shouted that he also had a “rifle at my crib.” He refused to go onto Kinsey’s property. “I know my legal rights … sidewalk is government property.”
Nothing happened at that moment. Smith left to take his nephew home. But he returned to the front of Kinsey’s house several minutes later.
Witnesses differed on exactly what happened next. One neighbor said Smith just had his hands balled up and took two steps before the gunfire erupted. But Kinsey testified that Smith — shirtless, and brandishing no weapon — charged at him.
Kinsey fired two bullets, felling him at a range of just a few feet. His body fell on the sidewalk, never having been on the property.
But Kinsey said he fired because he was defending his home. Judge Thomas decided that video — which included Smith saying he would spread Kinsey’s “blood all over the street” — showed “Smith’s relentless determination to violently harm Kinsey.”
He also noted that Kinsey never once attacked Smith. “It was Smith who got violent. It was Smith who became uncontrollably enraged,” the judge said.
The judge also noted that several neighbors “had the opportunity to stop this madness. But rather than intervening to end the violent encounter, the continued to encourage the young men to fight. … During this time, no one called the police. No one said stop!”
Photo: LaDawna’s pics via Flickr