Changes sought in self-defense law
WESLEY CHAPEL - William and Jeanann Kuch say they are making a plea for common sense. On Aug. 1, 2009, their son, Billy Kuch, 23, was shot in the chest after he drunkenly tried to enter a home in the Stagecoach subdivision. While the Kuches acknowledge that their son was inebriated and suffers from bipolar disorder, he was unarmed when he was shot and asking homeowner Gregory Stewart for a lighter. Billy Kuch lived, despite spending a month in an intensive-care unit, and Stewart, now 33, was initially charged with aggravated battery. However, citing the "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law enacted in 2005, the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute him. William and Jeanann Kuch think the law should be changed. They say they support the Second Amendment, but think cases in which unarmed people are shot by others who claim self-defense should always go before a jury."Every time we say something everyone comes back on us and says we're anti-gun and that's not true," Jeanann Kuch said. "But you have to be well-trained and use common sense. A jury should decide if it was truly self-defense. That way, people might think twice in a case like this. "All I ask is that people use common sense when they have a gun." On Wednesday morning, William Kuch and Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, brought the issue to state Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican. They want Weatherford to introduce legislation that would make jury trials mandatory in such cases. Weatherford was not in office when "Stand Your Ground" was passed, but he said he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, which covers an American's right to bear arms. "I haven't heard from any sheriffs or state attorneys or public defenders or judges saying they have a problem (with the law) that needs fixing," Weatherford said. "I need to talk to those folks; they're the ones in the field dealing with crime. My instincts tell me that if this is such a big problem, I would have heard about it before. "But, I'm fair. I'll do my due diligence and get back with them. I have some calls in to some people, so it might take a couple of days. The session doesn't start until next March, so I'm not filing any legislation until I have a better understanding of the issue." What confuses the Kuches is why charges weren't brought against Stewart, based on the sheriff's office report. All sides agree that Billy Kuch was drunk. Records showed that his blood-alcohol level was more than 0.3; drivers are presumed intoxicated at 0.08. But Kuch's parents point out that their son is 5-foot-9 and about 160 pounds, while Stewart is 6-foot-1 and about 250 pounds. "My son was a nuisance, not a threat," William Kuch said, adding that his son was looking for a house party when he mistakenly tried to open Stewart's front door. Looking for a light Stewart's wife was nursing their 1-month-old baby near the front door when Billy Kuch tried to open it about 5 a.m. Records say Gregory Stewart opened the door and told Kuch to leave, then went outside and searched the area to make sure he did. Kuch returned later and again tried to open the front door. This time, Stewart grabbed his .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun and told his wife to call 911. Stewart went outside to confront Kuch. Stewart pointed the gun at Kuch and told him to leave the property. Billy Kuch had an unlit cigarette in one hand and a shirt in the other. He wanted to borrow a lighter. "Please don't make me shoot you," Stewart said. "I don't want to shoot you." Kuch, 23, raised his hands, palms facing Stewart. He was mumbling incoherently and swaying. But he took a few steps toward Stewart before Stewart fired one shot. Kuch spent about a month in an intensive care unit, but lived. His parents said he has since moved to Kentucky. According to a sheriff's report, Stewart realized he had his cigarettes in his waistband as he spoke to deputies that morning. "Greg appeared to get upset and began to cry, stating, 'I could have given him a light,'" the report says. Stewart told investigators he fired because he "didn't know what" Kuch was going to do. "I didn't know what he had," he said. Kuch was within arm's reach of Stewart when Stewart fired. Stewart said he felt threatened. Asked why he didn't stay inside his house and wait for law enforcement to arrive, Stewart said, "I don't know." 'It's crazy' On Sept. 28, 2009, William and Jeanann Kuch wrote a letter to Bernie McCabe, state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties. Noting that their son was diagnosed as bipolar and abuses alcohol and drugs to deal with mood swings, they asked whether McCabe's decision not to prosecute Stewart would have been different had Billy Kuch suffered from dementia or autism. They asked McCabe whether his decision would have been different had Billy Kuch been his own son, or Gov. Charlie Crist's. The Kuches said they have not received an answer. "We have a law on the books that allows one human to shoot another human," William Kuch said. "It's wrong. Why are we changing moral thought with law? It's crazy."
Reporter Geoff Fox can be reached at (813) 259-8116.