Self-defense or murder? Florida case divides law enforcement

In this undated photo made available by the Modell family, Ryan Modell, right, visits Paris with his father, Sandy Modell. Ryan Modell was shot to death by a neighbor who is claiming he pursued and fatally shot Modell, who was drunk at the time, after he pounded on a door after midnight. Modell's family wants Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to appoint a special prosecutor to re-examine the 2016 case.

A Florida homicide detective believes an Army veteran committed murder when he pursued and fatally shot a drunk, unarmed neighbor who pounded on his door after midnight, saying prosecutors should have rejected the shooter’s self-defense claim.

Lee County sheriff’s Lt. David Lebid recently disputed prosecutors’ contention that Steve Taylor’s 2016 shooting of Ryan Modell is protected under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law. Modell’s father wants Gov. Ron DeSantis to appoint a special prosecutor to review the local state attorney’s decision not to charge Taylor.

Lebid said Modell, 32, left Taylor’s door at their Fort Myers condo complex and was no longer a threat when Taylor pursued him. Taylor, when he found Modell, pointed his gun and its targeting laser at the drunk man’s face.

Lebid, who led the investigation, called that an illegal provocation that caused Modell, acting in self-defense, to charge. Taylor backed away, then fired.

“It’s a murder. I believe he murdered this person,” Lebid told attorneys representing Modell’s father. Lebid, in the Jan. 20 deposition, said prosecutors should at least present the evidence to a grand jury. Amira Fox, the local state attorney, has refused. Fox, a Republican, declined comment.

But her office says Taylor’s actions are protected by “stand your ground,” which makes it difficult to challenge a self-defense claim that has any plausibility.

Adopted in 2005 and copied by other states, it says people in public may use deadly force to defend their life, even if they can safely retreat — provided they aren’t the aggressor. Under a 2017 amendment, prosecutors must persuade a judge by “clear and convincing” evidence that the claim is illegitimate before any charges can be tried. Before the amendment, defendants held the burden of proof.

Assistant State Attorney Daniel Feinberg, in a 2017 memo, called Modell the aggressor and Taylor’s pursuit “of no legal consequence.” Prosecutors can’t disprove Taylor’s stand-your-ground claim, he said.

The shooter’s attorney, Matthew Toll, said Taylor is “the real victim,” having reacted to an “existential threat” after being awoken.

Sandy Modell, the dead man’s father, has accused Fox of fearing political retribution from the National Rifle Association if she challenges Taylor’s defense. Modell also believes the state attorney is angry because he once rented a billboard calling her “nice to murderers.”

He asked DeSantis in 2019 to intervene, but has gotten no response. The Republican governor’s press office has also not responded to Associated Press inquiries.

“I have been frustrated by the whole government process,” Sandy Modell said.

Modell has hired Benjamin Crump’s law firm. The prominent civil rights attorney typically represents families of Black people killed by police or others under circumstances he considers questionable. Those include the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and George Floyd.

But in this case, both the shooter and deceased were white. Crump took the case because he is a vocal stand-your-ground critic.

“It absolutely allows people to get away with murder,” Crump said — particularly if the person killed is a minority. He sees the Modell shooting “as an opportunity to show America that this is not just a bad law for Black victims, but also for white victims.”

No one disputes Taylor killed Modell on March 20, 2016. The question is who the aggressor was when Taylor shot him.

Unacquainted, the men lived in identical buildings near each other, both in units numbered 102.

According to records, on March 19, a Saturday, Modell, his girlfriend and friends drank for hours, celebrating his new job calibrating medical devices.

Meanwhile, Taylor, who served in the first Gulf War, and his wife, Patrice, 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% — that’s blackout drunk. Dressed only in shorts, he mistakenly pounded on the Taylors’ door returning from the pool, awakening them.

Taylor retrieved his 10 mm Glock. The tractor-equipment salesman yelled through the door, telling Modell he had the wrong unit.

When Modell stepped back, Taylor cracked the door, pointed his gun and warned him not to approach. Modell charged.

“He moved … like a linebacker,” Taylor said. Modell, a former University of Central Florida tennis team captain, stood 6-foot-1 (1.8 meters) and weighed 224 pounds (101 kilograms).

Modell could have been legally shot at that moment, his father’s attorneys concede — but Taylor didn’t fire.

Instead, he slammed the door on Modell’s toe, while his wife called 911. The stranger disappeared. Taylor went outside with his gun, telling investigators he feared the man would break through the back door. Detective Lebid and Modell’s father question why Taylor didn’t monitor it and the front door from inside.

Taylor traversed a 50-foot (15-meter) walkway before finding Modell sitting on a driveway, hosing off his bloody toe. Taylor pointed his gun and activated its laser pointer, the beam striking Modell’s face.

That’s when “the thing went bad,” Taylor said in a deposition. Modell sprayed him, made threats and then ran toward him.

Taylor backpedaled 100 feet (30 meters). When Modell got within 2 feet (0.6 meters), Taylor fired. Modell crumpled, shot through the heart. A deputy arrived seconds later.

“I wanted that threat to my life to go away,” Taylor later said, making the stand-your-ground claim prosecutors support.

But Detective Lebid and Crump’s attorneys argue Taylor became the aggressor when he pursued Modell and pointed his gun. That transformed Modell into the person standing his ground.

“You force(d) the conflict,” Lebid said about Taylor. “You need to answer for your actions.”

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