Florida took a major step toward becoming the first state to put the burden of proof in pretrial "stand your ground" hearings on prosecutors rather than defendants when the Senate passed a bill Wednesday to revise the state's 12-year-old law.
The Senate voted 23-15 for the measure Republicans say became necessary after the state Supreme Court ruled two years ago that defendants had the burden of proof in pretrial self-defense immunity hearings.
Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley was a House member and bill sponsor for Florida's 2005 "stand your ground" law, and he said it was always his intention that prosecutors had to prove self-defense wasn't a factor before trying someone on violent crime charges.
"If the state believes you've committed a crime, it should always be their responsibility from beginning to end to prove you've committed a crime," Baxley said. "I'm sorry if that burden seems too heavy, but that's what we do in America. You're innocent till proven guilty."
Democrats argued that if it passes, people will be more likely to kill witnesses who might dispute a claim of self-defense.
"This bill has the unintended consequence of incentivizing shoot to kill. Dead men tell no tales," said Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer.
Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson added, "It's a how to get away with murder bill, in my opinion."
While at least 22 states have similar laws that say people can use even deadly force to defend themselves from threats, Florida could be alone shifting the burden to prosecutors. Only four states mention burden of proof in their "stand your ground" laws - Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina - and all place the burden on defendants.
High profile Florida shootings have created a contentious debate over the law, including the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder after jurors received "stand your ground" instructions.
But Republican Sen. Rob Bradley doesn't believe his bill will allow the guilty to walk free.
"If I thought for one second that this bill would encourage people to engage in criminal behavior because the bill created some sort of loophole ... I would have no part of this bill," he said. "If I thought that an otherwise guilty person would go free as a result of this bill, then I would have no part in filing this bill."
A House version has one more committee stop before it's ready for a vote by the full chamber.