A Florida judge dismissed manslaughter charges Wednesday against a suspended sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed 33-year-old Jermaine McBean back in 2013.
According to The Guardian, Judge Michael Usan ruled that Broward County sheriff’s deputy Peter Peraza was immune from conviction under the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. The statute garnered national outrage following the 2012 killing of unarmed Black teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
Typically used as a civilian defense, Peraza’s lawyers said they believe this is the first time a law enforcement officer has successfully cited the “stand your ground” law in defense of a fatal, on-duty shooting, The Guardian reports.
The judge’s decision was met with anger from both McBean’s family and the prosecution.
“This is a slap in the face to the grand jury and the people of Broward County,” McBean family attorney David Schoen said.
The Florida man was gunned down by Peraza three years ago near an Oakland Park apartment complex after reportedly pointing an unloaded air rifle at the deputy. Passersby saw McBean, a Black man, carrying the air rifle as he walked home along the highway, and called 911. Once on the scene, Peraza and two other responding deputies ordered McBean to drop the weapon — commands he reportedly ignored. Police say the deputy opened fired after McBean aimed the rifle at him; eyewitnesses say the Florida man never did so.
There were also conflicting reports about whether McBean could hear the officer’s commands. Police argued there was nothing interfering with his hearing, but a photo of McBean’s lifeless body showed him with headphones in his ears. The same headphones were later found stuffed in McBean’s pant pocket.
Despite the judge’s ruling, McBean’s brother feels the case needs to go to trial.
“We are absolutely devastated. This is a complete miscarriage of justice and a travesty,”Andrew McBean told Florida’s Local 10 News. “A judge [being] able to throw out a trial when a grand jury for Broward County specifically decided to indict is a huge injustice. The case illustrates corruption in the system. We have eyewitnesses that state Jermaine never pointed the toy air rifle at officers. It’s not an easy thing to re-live this loss over and over again. This case needs to go to trial.”
Peraza was suspended pending the investigation and charged with manslaughter last year. However, just three months later, he and another officer who responded to the 911 call were awarded the Gold Cross Award, Atlanta Black Star reports. The duo received the award following a nomination from Lieutenant Brad J. Ostroff “after they placed themselves in harm’s way to ensure civilians were protected.”
McBean’s family was outraged and requested that the award be revoked. A spokeswoman for the sheriff said there were no plans to strip Peraza of the award “because we don’t want to prejudice the jury, even more so now,” ABS reports.
Per The Guardian, Judge Usan ultimately dismissed the charges against Peraza, a 37-year-old Latino man, before the case went to a jury trial. Prosecutors said they plan to appeal the judge’s decision.
“While we respect the court’s decision, we disagree with its conclusion,” Broward County state attorney’s office spokesman Ron Ishoy said in a statement. “We believe, based upon an appellate court decision, that a law enforcement officer is not entitled to a dismissal of the charge based upon the ‘stand your ground’ law. While there is conflicting evidence, we feel a jury should resolve those conflicts. We believe that the facts of the case do not support that this was a justifiable shooting. At this moment, our thoughts go out to the family of the late Mr. McBean.”
Peraza could have spent up to 30 years in prison if he was convicted of manslaughter, Local 10 News reports. Just last month, the sheriff’s deputy testified in a “stand your ground” hearing where he claimed he feared for his life before shooting McBean in 2013.
“He’s going to kill me,” Peraza recalled thinking when he was confronted by the Florida man. “He’s going to kill somebody.”
What makes this case interesting is that the deputy was able to successfully cite Florida’s “stand your ground” law to fight his manslaughter charge. The statute, which allows an individual to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” their life is in danger, has historically been used as a civilian defense. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler explained that “stand your ground” laws were originally created for civilians, not law enforcement officials. Police officers are usually subject to separate legal standards that establish when they are allowed to use lethal force.
“It’s just kind of an odd idea that we’d apply these civilian laws to police officers,” Winkler said.
The case of Jermaine McBean is yet another example of how police officers are rarely criminally charged for on-duty shootings. A 2014 article by the Wall Street Journal cited research from a Bowling Green State University criminologist who found that only 41 officers in the U.S. were charged with either murder or manslaughter in connection with on-duty shootings over a seven-year span.
“It’s very rare that an officer gets charged with a homicide offense resulting from their on-duty conduct even though people are killed on a fairly regular basis,” said Philip Stinson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green.
The rate of police indictments saw an uptick last year, however, with 14 officers indicted on murder charges in just five months, according to The Atlantic. That is five times higher than the normal rate.