Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law was born of 2004 case, but story has been distorted electricity facts


In 2005, as lawmakers pushed to pass sweeping self-defense legislation that would become known as the "stand your ground" law, critics had one challenge: Show us a case in which someone had been treated unjustly. • Backers of the new bill had an answer: James Workman.

Here was a 77-year-old retiree asleep with his wife in an RV outside their hurricane-damaged home in 2004. And here came a menacing intruder, prowling through the dark, bursting into the trailer. The homeowner shot the intruder, then had to wait months — painful, anxiety-filled months in legal jeopardy — before prosecutors decided the two shots he fired were justified, that what he did was protect himself and his wife.

Workman didn’t know much about saltwater fishing. He threw lures in lakes and ponds in southeast Missouri, where he served as county commissioner before retiring to Florida, but the view of Big Lagoon was breathtaking. Plus, his home wasn’t far from the golf course, where he shot in the low 90s.

When Hurricane Ivan made landfall on Sept. 16, 2004, it killed more than a dozen people and shredded much of the Emerald Coast, especially the area west of Pensacola. In the following weeks, workers from across the South headed to Florida to restore power and rebuild homes and make a little extra money.

The winds tore off the front porch of Workman’s house and ruined the roof. Workman, 77 then, and his wife, Kathryn, 56, tried to make do, but a good portion of the house was unlivable. They did what they could to clean up after the storm, then headed to a vacation home in North Georgia for a respite.

A neighbor called while they were gone to report that someone camping across the street had hooked a water hose to the Workmans’ home. This concerned them. Thieves and criminals had followed the itinerant cleanup workers, and nerves were frayed. Three weeks before, 100 yards away from their brick house, a growling man with a machete had tried to break into a travel trailer. Deputies had subdued the man with a bean-bag projectile and a Taser.

Cox, 35, was a doting father, his family said. He loved to play in the swimming pool with his children and take his son fishing. Cox would leave his home in Asheville, N.C., at a moment’s notice and be casting lines and cracking cold beers on the Atlantic in a half-dozen hours.

He played a lot of golf and shot in the high 80s. He listened to Jimmy Buffett and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He never had to study to make good grades in school, his sister said, and he aced the test to get his general contractor’s license. His hard work earned him a fishing boat and vacations to Cancun and the Outer Banks.

What is on his record are a handful of speeding tickets and traffic infractions, boating without proper lights, fishing without a trout license, and one charge of driving while impaired, to which he pleaded guilty and paid a $100 fine and $90 in court costs.

The phone call ended. Cox flagged down a deputy a few minutes later. In his report, the deputy noted that Cox "appeared to be intoxicated." He was jumpy and unable to stand still. He was having trouble completing his sentences. He asked Cox if he had any mental disorders or if he was taking any narcotics. Cox said he’d had several beers but was not using drugs. He told the deputy that someone had tried to break into his trailer, but he didn’t know who, and that he wanted to check into a hotel.

If James Workman and Rodney Cox had met under different circumstances, if the night hadn’t been as dark or the tension as thick, if it hadn’t been past 2 a.m. in a hurricane-wrecked neighborhood full of jumpy people, if one of them hadn’t been trespassing and the other hadn’t been armed, there’s a good chance they would have found common ground. They could have talked about golf, or fishing, or hunting. They might have been friends.

Three months later, on Jan. 30, the Workmans read in the same paper that the State Attorney’s Office had ruled the shooting justified, that Workman "was confronted with circumstances and conditions beyond his control that resulted in the unfortunate death of Mr. Cox."

Weeks later, when the "stand your ground" law was introduced in the Legislature, a reporter asked David Rimmer, the assistant state attorney who decided not to charge Workman, for his opinion. He would not comment for this story because he is a judge now, but he told the Pensacola News Journal in 2005, "I think the law’s fine as it is."

"One of the major reasons I support this bill is for a 72-year-old man laying in bed at night with his 68-year-old wife, trying to sleep, when an intruder came in on them," said Greg Evers, a Republican from Baker. "The man shot the intruder, wounded him, did not fatally kill him. But yet for six months, he wondered if he was going to be charged with shooting the man. Folks, that’s not right."

In the various accounts, the politicians erred on several facts, the Workmans’ ages, 77 and 56, being the least of them. It was less than three months. Workman went outside to confront Cox and fired a warning shot into the ground before Cox ran into the trailer. When Workman chased Cox into the trailer, Cox didn’t strike him. He bear-hugged Workman, pinning his arms to his sides.

The gunshot to Cox’s abdomen traveled through his left kidney and large intestine and lodged in his pelvis, and the shot to his thigh went through his left profunda femoris artery and lodged in his right thigh. Hospital staffers noted that he was dead on arrival.

In the wake of the February shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, national attention has turned to the very law passed on Workman’s story. Once again, Workman’s name is everywhere. The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald.

"Dennis Baxley, a member of Florida’s House of Representatives, says Workman was in legal limbo for weeks," Time magazine wrote. "Even though prosecutors eventually declined to charge Workman, Baxley co-sponsored the bill that would become the ‘stand your ground‘ law.

"Original Senate sponsor Durell Peaden said Tuesday it was crafted after an old man from Pensacola shot an intruder who tried to loot his hurricane-ravaged home," reporters from the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau wrote in March. Peaden couldn’t remember the man’s name, but he said he had to hire a lawyer to defend himself.

James Workman doesn’t know what brought Rodney Cox to his yard that night, what prompted him to mumble and wander around the property, what made him dart inside the RV. But Workman did what he felt he had to do in an intense and frightening moment. His wife was scared for her life.

After a friend identified Rodney Cox’s body, after police shipped home his bloody shorts and shirt, his family and friends gathered in North Carolina. They viewed a slideshow of his life and played his favorite music. They went to his mother’s house and ate his favorite meal, baked lasagna, and told stories and wondered how this had happened.