A Florida court has ruled that a man who thought he was defending his niece from unknown attackers was within his rights to fire a shot, even though he was actually targeting a sheriff’s deputy who was trying to arrest the woman.
In its ruling, the Fifth District Court of Appeals determined that John DeRossett cannot be tried under the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which prohibits prosecutions in cases where individuals did not know they were shooting at a member of law enforcement.
The decision — issued Wednesday — ends the prosecution of John DeRossett, 60, on the attempted premeditated first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer while discharging a firearm. DeRossett spent nearly five years at the Brevard County Jail Complex in Sharpes as he awaited a trial. He was allowed to leave on bond in March.
“The appellate decision is better than a jury acquittal. An acquittal only means ‘not guilty.’ This order means that John is innocent, that his actions were justified, and that he never should have been arrested in the first place. It’s a total vindication,” said DeRossett’s Orlando-based attorney, Michael Panella.
Bervard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey disagrees, telling reporters at a news conference that while he respects the judges’ ruling, he doesn’t agree with it “in any way.”
Ivey said DeRossett “knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew exactly what was going on inside that house.”
Ivey said [Deputy John “Casey” ] Smith, who is medically retired from the sheriff’s office, was “a true, true victim, not only in this case, but in this ruling. Because Casey’s life was completely changed by this individual’s actions. His career was changed. His life was changed. His family’s life was changed.”
By all accounts, it sounds like it was a chaotic situation on the evening of August 20th, 2015. Police arrived at DeRossett’s home to take his niece into custody on prostitution charges. Smith previously testified that deputies did identify themselves as police when they approached the door of the home, but it sounds like DeRossett wasn’t in earshot to hear the deputies.
DeRossett’s attorney’s argued that his client did not know who the men were confronting his niece that night, and that he was responding to her screams for help at the front door.
Both DeRossett’s niece, Mary Ellis DeRossett — a convicted prostitute known as “The Cougar” — and DeRossett, then a security guard at Port Canaveral, suffered minor gunshot injuries, reports show.
Court records show that Mary DeRossett, who has a history of substance abuse, was seeing prostitution clients in her bedroom at the home. The appeal court found that while John DeRossett was aware of his niece’s illegal activities, the state didn’t show that he promoted or assisted her in her illegal activities.
Sheriff Ivey told reporters that he still supports the state’s Stand Your Ground law, he just feels that it was wrongfully applied by the appeals court in DeRossett’s case.
While DeRossett isn’t exactly a Boy Scout, it sounds like there was a real lack of evidence that he knew the men at his door grabbing his niece were police officers. According to the Stand Your Ground language, the law does not apply if:
The person against whom the defensive force is used or threatened is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using or threatening to use force knew or reasonably should have known that the person entering or attempting to enter was a law enforcement officer.
It seems to me that the issue boils down to whether or not DeRossett knew or should have known the police were at his door, and not, say, a couple of angry johns trying to rob his niece. Not having had a chance to weigh all the evidence myself, I can’t pass judgement on whether or not I think the court made the right call, but I can definitely understand why Sheriff Ivey feels like this decision was in error, as well as his concern that criminals might try to exploit this decision in the future.
If the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals got it right, then this was a tragedy for most everyone involved. Deputy Smith is on medical retirement thanks to the injuries he received that night. DeRossett, meanwhile, was held behind bars for nearly five years on the attempted murder charge before being released on bond back in March. Thankfully there was no loss of live on that August night nearly five years ago, but the lives of both men have been forever changed.