By Terry Spencer, AP
In a case involving Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been asked to reinvestigate the fatal shooting of a drunken, unarmed man who mistakenly pounded on a wrong door in the middle of the night.
A request to appoint a special prosecutor in the case was made by attorney Mark O’Mara, best known as the defense attorney for George Zimmerman, who was acquitted on murder charges in the internationally publicized shooting of Trayvon Martin more than six years ago.
This time around, O’Mara is representing the father of Ryan Modell, who was fatally shot by Steve Taylor in March 2016 at the Fort Myers condominium complex where both lived.
In both the Martin and Modell slayings, prosecutors cited the “stand your ground” law in deciding, at least initially, not to prosecute. The law says people who justifiably believe they face death or great bodily harm can use deadly force without first retreating, but they cannot be the confrontation’s instigator.
Family members of Martin, 17, and now Modell, 32, claim the shooters were the instigators and therefore weren’t entitled to use the law. Ultimately, O’Mara didn’t use the law as a defense in the Zimmerman case, but it was cited by police who waited 44 days to arrest him.
In the Modell case, O’Mara argues that “stand your ground” does not apply. He says Taylor should not have gone outside with his gun and pursued Modell after Modell walked away from his door.
“You are not allowed to put yourself in a position where you have to shoot,” says O’Mara, who wants Taylor charged with second-degree murder. DeSantis’ office said the Republican governor is examining the request to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate. A similar plea to Republican former Gov. Rick Scott went nowhere.
Modell’s father, Sandy Modell, said he believes now-retired State Attorney Stephen Russell and his chief deputy, Amira Fox, who successfully ran to replace him in 2018, wanted to give the National Rifle Association a “stand your ground” victory and didn’t want to risk losing a high-profile case before the election.
Fox’s office and Taylor’s current and former attorneys, Matthew Toll and Robert Harris, declined to comment.
That Taylor shot Modell on the early morning of March 20, 2016, is undisputed. Modell and Taylor lived in the complex in identical buildings, each in units numbered 102. They didn’t know each other.
According to Lee County sheriff’s reports and court records, on March 19, a Saturday, Modell, his girlfriend and friends began hours of drinking. A former captain of the University of Central Florida tennis team, Modell was celebrating his new job calibrating medical devices.
Meanwhile, Taylor, a tractor equipment salesman who served on a tank during the first Gulf War, and his wife, Patrice Taylor, stayed home. Taylor, then 46, says he drank four beers before going to bed about 10:30 p.m.
By 2:30 a.m. March 20, Modell had a blood-alcohol content of 0.25%, triple the limit for driving in Florida. It is believed Modell, dressed only in shorts, intended to return to his condo from the pool, but instead mistakenly pounded on the Taylors’ door, awakening them.
Steve Taylor, dressed in boxers, retrieved his 10mm Glock and turned on the porch light. He said he told Modell through the door he had the wrong unit, but Modell didn’t respond, appearing drugged.
“I was scared that the Grim Reaper is outside,” Taylor said in a 2019 deposition.
He said when Modell stepped back, he opened the door. He said he pointed his gun and warned Modell not to approach, but Modell charged.
“He moved … like a linebacker,” Taylor said. Modell stood 6-foot-1 (1.8 meters) and weighed 224 pounds (101 kilograms).
O’Mara concedes Taylor could have legally shot Modell then because he would have been protecting himself from an intruder.
Instead, Taylor slammed the door on Modell’s toe, while Patrice Taylor called 911. Taylor then went outside with his gun, later telling investigators he worried Modell would find the back door, which he said had a faulty lock.
O’Mara asserts that Taylor at that point became the aggressor, losing his self-defense rights. He says Taylor should have safely awaited deputies inside, guarding both doors. Instead, he went down the walkway and found Modell sitting, holding his bloody toe. Patrice Taylor came outside, warning Modell she had called police. The couple said Modell charged her, but she got inside and closed the door.
Taylor said he kept his gun pointed at Modell, who washed his foot with a hose. He said he activated his gun’s laser pointer and the beam hit Modell’s face, angering him.
“The thing went bad,” Taylor said in the deposition. He said Modell sprayed water at him, made threats and then charged.
O’Mara says Taylor committed aggravated assault by pointing a gun at a nearly naked, obviously unarmed man, and Modell’s reaction to the laser was understandable because he believed he was about to be shot.
“If you put a laser on my chest, there is one of two things I am going to do: duck and run or kill you,” O’Mara says.
Taylor said he ran backward 100 feet (30 meters) until he was trapped by hedges. He said he fired when Modell got within 2 feet (0.6 meters), killing him. O’Mara says evidence suggests Modell was several feet back. Taylor surrendered to a deputy who arrived seconds later.
“I only fired the weapon to save my life,” Taylor said in the deposition.
Sandy Modell says his son drank too much that night and should have been charged with disorderly conduct, but “not executed.”
“My son is dead because some hothead with a gun had to play a big shot for his wife,” Modell says.