Late Friday night, a jury delivered the guilty verdict that Markeis McGlockton’s family never thought would come.
They had many reasons not to get their hopes up, family attorney Michele Rayner told The Washington Post. First, there were the 25 days it took to arrest the man who fatally shot 28-year-old McGlockton in a dispute over a handicap parking spot. There was the county sheriff who backed the shooter’s invocation of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law. There were parallels to the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen whose shooter was acquitted in the same state after he claimed self-defense.
But on Friday there were sobs, sighs and hugs in the courtroom as Michael Drejka, 49, was convicted of manslaughter in a case that’s captured national attention. McGlockton’s girlfriend clapped her hands, the Tampa Bay Times reported, while others squeezed the shoulder of the slain man’s father.
Drejka’s lawyers argued the Florida man acted reasonably in self-defense last year after McGlockton pushed him to the ground in the parking lot outside a Clearwater, Fla., convenience store. Prosecutors, however, pointed to video footage showing McGlockton backing away before Drejka shot him. He would collapse before his 5-year-old son.
Jurors rejected Drejka’s defense.
Drejka “took the life of another human being without any legal justification,” Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub said at the trial.
Schaub delivered passionate closing arguments, the Tampa Bay Times reported, walking the courtroom and at times throwing up his hands. “He was a human being in our world,” he said of McGlockton. “What have we come to in this country?”
Drejka’s lawyers, who plan to appeal the verdict after an Oct. 10 sentencing, maintain that their client thought he was at risk, saying he didn’t see McGlockton’s backing away as removing the threat in the three seconds between pulling his gun and firing.
“He had really no time to assess the danger,” defense attorney Bryant Camareno told The Post.
Camareno said he and Drejka’s other lawyers ultimately used a self-defense argument rather than Florida’s stand-your-ground law specifically, not wanting their client to have to testify at a pretrial hearing. But Drejka’s initial stand-your-ground claim and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s reference to the statute when he declined to arrest Drejka last year renewed scrutiny of a law that lets people react with deadly force before trying to back away if they have a reasonable belief their lives are at risk.
Florida legislators doubled down on the measure in 2017, placing the burden of disproving a stand-your-ground defense on prosecutors.
Like Trayvon Martin, McGlockton was black and shot by a man who said he felt threatened. The judge in the case wrote that he did not consider race a factor in the killing, defense lawyers said. But Rayner framed McGlockton’s death as one of many unjustified killings of black men, mentioning not just Martin but also Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
She said McGlockton’s family was pained by the defense’s attacks on the victim’s character throughout the trial, saying that Drejka’s attorneys used racist tropes when they called McGlockton violent and badly parented. Defense lawyer John Trevena told The Post the accusations of racism are “absolutely absurd.”
“Obviously while you are hopeful the jury will get it right, there is a real concern that this is a another case where the jury won’t convict and will say that this life — Markeis’s life, as a black person — did not matter,” Rayner said.
Unlike Martin’s 2012 case, where a not-guilty verdict sparked outrage and helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement, McGlockton’s death was caught on camera.
The altercation that led to McGlockton’s death began last July 19 when Drejka noticed a car parked in a space reserved for the handicapped outside a Circle A Food Store and confronted Britany Jacobs, McGlockton’s girlfriend, while her partner was inside shopping with their 5-year-old son. According to Drejka, the car had no handicap permit.
Jacobs said she became worried about her and her children’s safety as Drejka circled the car and looked in the windows, according to a criminal complaint. She argued with Drejka until McGlockton returned and shoved Drejka in a moment captured on surveillance.
McGlockton backed up “immediately” when Drejka pulled out a .40-caliber Glock handgun, the complaint says. But Drejka fired a shot. McGlockton, who did not have a weapon, died after running into the store. He fell down in front of his 5-year-old, his other children — then 4 and 3 months old — not far away.
Drejka, who did not testify, said in an interview with detectives played for jurors that he “always” carried his gun and had a “pet peeve” about the illegal use of handicapped parking, according to the Associated Press. He said he often scoured for handicapped stickers and placards at the convenience store, and authorities say he accosted a truck driver over the same spot earlier.
Prosecutors said Drejka should have called police rather than escalate the situation on his own last July.
“He is a parking lot vigilante,” prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser said Friday during closing arguments, the AP reported.
Prosecutors accused Drejka of manslaughter — unlawful killing — rather than first- or second-degree murder, which involve premeditated violence or killing without regard for human life. The jury deliberated for more than six hours, at one point turning to the judge with confusion over the much-discussed stand-your-ground law, before weighing in at 10:41 p.m., according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Camareno said he believes Drejka will be given the maximum sentence he faces, 30 years in prison. But he thinks appellate courts may take issue with statements from the prosecution that Camareno said inappropriately criticized a defense lawyer and an expert witness.
The Pinellas State Attorney’s office declined to comment Saturday.
McGlockton’s parents, Michael McGlockton and Monica Moore-Robinson, said in a statement that the conviction “does give us some sense of justice because far too often the criminal justice system fails us by allowing people who take the lives of unarmed Black people to walk free.”
“We still have work to do to create the kind of world that his kids and all of our children deserve to live in,” they said.
Clarification: A previous version of this article said that both Trayvon Martin and Markeis McGlockton were killed by white men. In fact, George Zimmerman, who shot Martin, is both white and Hispanic.