Man Charged with Manslaughter in Florida Stand Your Ground Case

Several questions must be considered in deciding whether someone can be protected under the law when they use deadly force…

(Kathryn Varn and Zachary T. Sampson, Tampa Bay Times)  Frustration and anticipation have packed the roughly three weeks since Michael Drejka shot Markeis McGlockton in a convenience store parking lot in a case that has reignited the debate over Florida’s stand your ground law.

And on Monday, it took a dramatic step when Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe announced his office was charging Drejka with manslaughter.

The 48-year-old Clearwater man was taken into custody Monday morning, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. He was booked about 12:20 p.m. into the Pinellas County Jail, where he was held in lieu of $100,000 bail as of Monday night.

“It’s about time,” said McGlockton’s father, Michael McGlockton, adding that he was ecstatic. “This is exactly what I wanted. This is exactly what me and my family wanted was to get this guy behind bars.”

McCabe said Monday that his office “reviewed everything, and we filed the charge we think we can prove.”

“I’m comfortable that we moved expeditiously to review the case,” he said.

Drejka shot 28-year-old McGlockton on July 19. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the next day that his agency was precluded from arresting Drejka because evidence showed it was “within the bookends of stand your ground and within the bookends of force being justified,” which provides immunity from arrest, the sheriff said.

He forwarded the case Aug. 1 to the state attorney’s office to make a final charging determination.

McCabe declined to elaborate on his decision, citing the pending case, but Drejka’s arrest warrant, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, provides new details.

It follows the same timeline outlined by authorities. The encounter between the two men started when Drejka confronted McGlockton’s girlfriend, Britany Jacobs, about why she had parked in a handicap-reserved parking space without a decal at the Circle A Food Store on Sunset Point Road in Clearwater.

Two of the couple’s children were with Jacobs in the car, which was idling with the windows up. Their third, 5-year-old Markeis Jr., was inside with his dad.

A witness, indicating that Drejka “appeared confrontational,” according to the warrant, told McGlockton about the heated argument outside and said he might want to get involved.

Surveillance video shows the rest. McGlockton left the store, walked up to Drejka and pushed him to the ground. Drejka then pulled out a Glock .40-caliber handgun and shot McGlockton. He told deputies they didn’t speak but he saw McGlockton twitch toward him and was in fear of further attack.

The warrant notes what McGlockton’s family and their lawyers have pointed out to show that Drejka’s fear wasn’t reasonable.

“Drejka steadies the firearm with both hands,” it says. “McGlockton immediately backs up when confronted with the firearm. As he backs up to his vehicle he begins to turn towards the front of the store away from the shooter.”

It also notes investigators used a scanner that helps capture measurement and distance to find that Drejka was about 12 feet from McGlockton when he fired.

Several questions must be considered in deciding whether someone can be protected under the law when they use force: Was the person acting lawfully? Did the person have a right to be there? And was the person in reasonable fear of serious injury or death?

State legislators revised the law last year to put the onus on prosecutors to disprove a stand your ground claim instead of on defense attorneys to prove one. That would be hashed out at a pretrial immunity hearing.

But first, Drejka, who could face up to 30 years in prison, would have to file a motion to dismiss the charge under a stand your ground defense. Both McCabe and Gualtieri said they have not heard from any lawyers on behalf of Drejka.

The sheriff said Monday that he supports McCabe’s decision. He reiterated that in order to make an arrest, the facts would have to clearly show stand your ground doesn’t apply, which he said wasn’t the case here. Otherwise, Drejka would have been in custody while prosecutors considered whether they could meet the burden established under the law.

That differs from a normal arrest in which law enforcement officers “establish if we have the elements of a crime without considering the defenses,” said the sheriff, who is also a lawyer.

“There’s no other provision in Florida law that says we have to consider these defenses,” he said.

Gualtieri, a Republican, has taken heat from both sides questioning whether he applied the law correctly. Democrats and civil rights groups have also wondered if race played a role in his decision, peaking last week when the Rev. Al Sharpton called for him to arrest Drejka or give up his badge. Drejka is white. McGlockton was black.

The sheriff, who is white, has contended race did not play a part in his assessment and that he made the right call under the law. Still, on Monday, some McGlockton supporters were frustrated.

“What he did is basically let a killer out on the loose until the state attorney finally made a decision,” Michael McGlockton said.

Drejka has remained largely a mystery to the public in the weeks since the shooting. The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that he has been the accused aggressor in four incidents since 2012. He was not arrested in any of the cases and does not have a criminal history in Florida.

His arrest warrant notes three out of four of the prior cases. Two were road rage incidents documented by law enforcement in which he was accused of showing a gun. A third was an argument a few months ago over the same parking space in which Drejka confronted another man, Richard Kelly, who said Drejka threatened to shoot him.

Last month’s shooting reignited a national debate and gained steam with the help of prominent voices.

Benjamin Crump, the civil rights lawyer known for representing unarmed black men who have died in violent encounters, including Trayvon Martin, signed on to represent Jacobs. Five members of Congress, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Charlie Crist, called for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to open an investigation.

And all the while, rallies and news conferences cropped up nearly every day to call for an arrest, organized by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Black Lives Matter.

Reaction was swift Monday, with supporters of McGlockton and his family expressing relief and gratitude toward the State Attorney’s Office finding.

“The truth has finally cut through the noise,” Crump said in a statement.

Marva McWhite, president of the Upper Pinellas/Clearwater branch of the NAACP, expressed a similar sentiment but said there is more work to do when it comes to the law.

“We’re determined to push until we get that legislation off the books,” she said, noting that the midterm election is fast approaching.

“The vote is our hope,” she said.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson called for a special session to address stand your ground, an effort that failed last week. On Monday, Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, praised prosecutors for being “thoughtful and deliberate.”

“Everybody and their blind relative could see that something was wrong on the part of the shooter and a shove should not elevate one to a death sentence,” Rouson said, adding that “the law as applied by the Sheriff’s Office was at least confusing and at best unclear.”

Given the situation, he said manslaughter is likely the “best and highest charge” prosecutors could pursue.

First-degree murder would require “evidence of prior planning,” said Bob Dekle, a former prosecutor and law professor emeritus at the University of Florida. Prosecutors pushing second-degree murder on Drejka would need to show he acted in a depraved manner, with “complete disregard for human life.”

Manslaughter, however, might be an easier case to prove to a jury, Dekle said, especially given that McGlockton pushed Drejka before the shooting. Attorneys, he said, might be best served to think of a grade-school mindset.

“He hit me first works better with juries than it does with parents and kindergarten teachers,” Dekle said. “Juries can be kind of sympathetic to that stuff.”

Michele Rayner, who is representing McGlockton’s parents, agreed during a news conference Monday that manslaughter was the right call.

Standing at the front of the same church where Sharpton delivered his remarks to hundreds of McGlockton supporters, she expressed gratitude the state attorney had “decided to do the right thing and charge.”

But the moment was bittersweet, she added. Notably missing was Jacobs, McGlockton’s girlfriend. It was little Markeis’ first day of school, Rayner said, “the first of many milestones in Mr. McGlockton’s children’s lives that he will miss.”

Still, the family seemed buoyed by hope. McGlockton’s mother, Monica Moore-Robinson, typically quiet and somber during appearances, took to the microphones at one point.

“I’ve just been in, I guess, a daze because that was my baby,” she said. “So today when I heard that he was getting charged … I could start healing.”

(Staff writer McKenna Oxenden contributed to this report.)

©2018 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.