Judge reverses himself, gives shooter 'stand your ground' immunity

SANFORD — On the third day of an attempted murder trial, a Sanford judge reversed himself and gave "stand your ground" immunity to an Altamonte Springs man who shot another man in a bar fight.

Christopher Roelofsen, 34, had been facing a long prison term, but on Wednesday, Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. ruled that the defendant acted in self-defense and had broken no law when he shot Federico Cortes on Oct. 31, 2010, outside a Longwood bar.

The judge sent jurors home after telling attorneys that he was issuing a judgment of acquittal and reversing his earlier decision, granting Roelofsen's "stand your ground" motion.

More than a year ago, Lester had held a three-day "stand your ground" hearing but at its conclusion had rejected Roelofsen's request for immunity.

As a consequence, the defendant's attempted first-degree murder trial began Feb. 24, and prosecutors presented their case. Their most important witness was Cortes, 34, of Winter Springs.

He told jurors he and Roelofsen got into a fight near the bathroom of Liquid Scrips, a bar on U.S. Highway 17-92, and that Roelofsen pushed him out the back door.

The two gave different versions about what happened next, especially about who was the aggressor and when each produced a weapon. Cortes had a 3- to 4-inch pocket knife. Roelofsen had a pistol.

Before it was over, Roelofsen had been stabbed in the chest. There was a chase that covered 100 to 150 feet, and Cortes had been shot once.

Cortes told jurors he stabbed Roelofsen and ran for safety after the defendant threatened him with a gun. Roelofsen then chased him down and shot him. The bullet entered Cortes' left arm and abdomen, according to Assistant State Attorney Tom Hastings.

But according to Roelofsen, Cortes was the aggressor. Jurors did not hear his account because the judge halted the trial, but the defendant was called as a witness at his "stand your ground" hearing Nov. 1, 2012.

He said Cortes stabbed him and only then did he pull out his gun. He also said he opened fire only after losing sight of Cortes, finding him around a corner and seeing him still with the knife and fearing that he would be stabbed again.

Defense attorney Kenneth Hamburg said the key issue was Cortes' inconsistency on the witness stand. At trial, he said he had his knife out and ready before the fight began. At the earlier hearing, he said he did not get it until after the fight started.

The change convinced the judge, Hamburg said, that Cortes was the aggressor.

The judge's decision, made after the jury had been sworn in, left prosecutors with no chance to appeal, Hastings said.

At "stand your ground" hearings, Hastings said, the judge decides who is telling the truth and who is lying. At trials, that's the job of the jury.

Florida's "stand your ground" law has generated a great deal of debate since Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman killed an unarmed black 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford two years ago.

The statute provides immunity for anyone who uses deadly force, provided he has a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily injury.

Sanford police invoked that law as part of the reason they did not arrest Zimmerman after the shooting.

Zimmerman eventually was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, but a Seminole County jury acquitted him last year.

Roelofsen, a handyman and tile installer, has a concealed weapons permit, as does Zimmerman.

Florida enacted the "stand your ground" law in 2005. But after Trayvon's death, reformers have been pressing for change. During this legislative session, some lawmakers are urging revisions that would prohibit aggressors from invoking the law and to make sure that law enforcement agencies conduct full investigations, despite a suspect's claim that he is entitled to immunity.

rstutzman@tribune.com or 407-650-6394