OCALA, Fla. (AP) — Authorities came under pressure Tuesday to arrest and charge a white woman who fired through her front her door and killed a Black neighbor in a case that has put Florida’s divisive stand your ground law back into the spotlight.
About three dozen mostly Black protesters gathered outside the Marion County Judicial Center to demand that the shooter be arrested in the country’s latest flashpoint over race and gun violence. The chief prosecutor, State Attorney William Gladson, met with the protesters and urged patience while the investigation continues.
“If we are going to make a case we need as much time and as much evidence as possible,” Gladson said. “I don’t want to compromise any criminal investigation and I’m not going to do that.”
Ajike Owens, a 35-year-old mother of four, was killed in the Friday night shooting that Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said was the culmination of a 2½-year feud between neighbors. The women lived in the rolling hills south of Ocala, a north Florida city that is the heart of the state's horse country.
Woods said Monday detectives are working with the State Attorney’s Office and must investigate possible self-defense claims before they can move forward with any possible criminal charges. The sheriff pointed out that because of the stand your ground law he can’t legally make an arrest unless he can prove the shooter did not act in self-defense.
On Tuesday, a stuffed teddy bear and bouquets marked the area near where Owens was shot. Nearby, children were riding bikes and scooters, and playing basketball. Protesters chanted “No justice, no peace” and “A.J. A.J. A.J” using Owens’ nickname. They carried signs saying: “Say her name Ajike Owens” and “It’s about us.”
Outside, the Rev. Bernard Tuggerson said the Black community in Ocala has suffered injustices for years. “Marion County is suffering and needs to be healed completely,” he said. “If we don’t turn from our wicked ways of the world, it’s going to be an ongoing problem. We want answers.”
The sheriff said Owens was shot moments after going to the apartment of her neighbor, who had yelled at Owens' children as they played in a nearby lot. He also said the neighbor, who has not been identified by police, had thrown a pair of skates that hit one of the children.
Deputies responding to a trespassing call at the apartment Friday night found Owens suffering from gunshot wounds. She later died at a hospital.
Before the confrontation, the shooter had been yelling racial slurs at the children, according to a statement from civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Owens’ family. He also represented Trayvon Martin's family in 2012, when the Black teenager was killed in a case that drew worldwide attention to the state's stand your ground law.
The sheriff’s office hasn’t confirmed there were slurs uttered or said whether race was a factor in the shooting.
Lauren Smith, 40, lives across the street from where the shooting happened. She was on her porch that day and saw one of Owens' young sons pacing, and yelling, “They shot my mama, they shot my mama.”
She ran toward the house, and started chest compressions until a rescue crew arrived. She said there wasn't an altercation and that Owens didn't have a weapon.
“She was angry all the time that the children were playing out there,” Smith said. “She would say nasty things to them. Just nasty.” Smith, who is white, described the neighborhood is family friendly.
The sheriff said that since January 2021, deputies responded at least a half-dozen calls in connection with what police described as feuding between Owens and the woman who shot her.
“There was a lot of aggressiveness from both of them, back and forth,” the sheriff said the shooter told investigators. “Whether it be banging on the doors, banging on the walls and threats being made. And then at that moment is when Ms. Owens was shot through the door.”
“I'm absolutely heartbroken,” Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told The Associated Press. She described the fatal shooting as “so senseless.”
“We’ve seen this again and again across this country,” she said, adding that “it’s really because of lax gun laws and a culture of shoot first.”
Ferrell-Zabala said stand your ground cases, which she refers to as “shoot first laws," are deemed justifiable five times more frequently when a white shooter kills a Black victim.
In 2017, Florida lawmakers updated the state’s self-defense statute to shift the burden of proof from a person claiming self-defense to prosecutors. That means authorities have to rule out self-defense before bringing charges. Before the change in law, prosecutors could charge someone with a shooting, and then defense attorneys would have to present an affirmative defense for why their client shouldn’t be convicted.
In fact, stand your ground and “castle doctrine" cases — which allow residents to defend themselves either by law or court precedent when threatened — have sparked outrage amid a spate of shootings across the country.
In April, 84-year-old Andrew Lester, a white man, shot and injured 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, a Black teenager who rang his doorbell in Kansas City after mistakenly showing up at the wrong house to pick up his younger siblings. Lester faces charges of first-degree assault and armed criminal action; at trial, he may argue that he thought someone was trying to break into his house, as he told police.
Missouri and Florida are among about 30 states that have stand your ground laws.
The most well-known examples of the stand your ground argument came up in the trial of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman, who had a white father and Hispanic mother, told police that Martin attacked him, forcing him to use his gun in self-defense. He was allowed to go free, but was arrested about six weeks later after Martin’s parents questioned his version of events and then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor.
Before trial, Zimmerman's attorneys chose not to pursue a stand your ground claim, which could have resulted in the dismissal of murder changes as well as immunity from prosecution. But during the trial, the law was essentially used as part of his self-defense argument. Jurors found him not guilty.
At a vigil Monday, Owens’ mother, Pamela Dias, said that she was seeking justice for her daughter and her grandchildren.
“My daughter, my grandchildren’s mother, was shot and killed with her 9-year-old son standing next to her,” Dias said. “She had no weapon. She posed no imminent threat to anyone.”
Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.