CLEARWATER, Fla. (CN) – Jurors heard opening arguments Wednesday in the manslaughter trial of a Florida man who shot and killed an unarmed black man in a convenience store parking lot and reignited the debate over the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law.
Michael Drejka faces up to 30 years in prison for the July 2018 shooting of Markeis McGlockton, who shoved Drejka to the ground following a dispute over a handicap-accessible parking space.
Drejka, 49, claims self-defense under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows a person to use force against an attacker before trying to retreat. Prosecutors and the victim’s family say McGlockton, 28, was backing up when he was shot and Drejka initiated the confrontation.
The Pinellas County sheriff’s decision to not press charges provoked an angry response by the black community in Florida and beyond, including rallies attended by the Reverend Al Sharpton and Democratic politicians, who evoked the furor over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin years earlier. A month later, the state attorney’s office brought a charge of manslaughter.
On Wednesday, Drejka took notes while State Attorney Fred Schaub outlined the evidence the state plans to show to the six jurors, including crucial video of the shooting taken by the convenience store’s outside surveillance cameras.
“You have the opportunity to almost be there, to see exactly what happened,” Schaub told the jury at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater.
In the video, Drejka can be seen arguing with McGlockton’s girlfriend, sitting inside McGlockton’s car, which is parked in the handicap-accessible space.
McGlockton was inside the store at the time with his 5-year-old son. Witnesses say another patron mentioned an argument outside and McGlockton left.
In the video, McGlockton opens the door, sees Drejka and pushes him to the ground.
Schaub showed the jury large posters of the blown-up surveillance video in an attempt to illustrate what McGlockton saw when he opened that door.
“[Drejka] is in front of [McGlockton’s] window,” Schaub told the jury. “In front of the mother of his children’s window. You bet he went out to defend his family.”
“Did he push him hard? Yes, he pushed him away from his family.”
Schaub then slowed the video down.
“After he did that, Mr. Drejka pulled out a gun,” he said. “Watch carefully, him backing up. Watch carefully, him turning to the side.”
The prosecutor argued McGlockton no longer posed a threat, but Drejka shot him anyway.
Drejka’s defense attorneys initially asked Pinellas Pasco Circuit Court Judge Joseph Bulone to not permit a slow motion version of the video, but in Bryant Camareno’s opening statement, he also told the jury to watch the video carefully.
“We want you to look at the video,” Camareno said. “Just not in slow motion. Life doesn’t happen in slow motion.”
Camareno characterized McGlockton’s push of Drejka as a “violent shove” and told jurors his client had just seconds to act.
“There’s no evidence of ill will, no evidence of hatred,” he said.
Although Drejka did not ask for a formal “stand your ground” hearing, in which a judge decides if the defendant is immune from prosecution, the law has played a large role in the public’s view of the case.
The statute, which allows the use of deadly force to defend life or property, first received national attention after the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman.
Many saw the shooting as racially motivated – Martin was black and Zimmerman is Hispanic – and expressed outrage when Zimmerman was acquitted.
In the coming days, prosecutors plan to call several witnesses, including a truck driver who says Drejka angrily confronted him about parking in a handicap-accessible spot months earlier at the same store. The defense will question the witnesses’ credibility and the low quality of the surveillance footage.
The six jurors – five men, one woman, none black – must come to a unanimous decision to find him guilty.