Attorney Michael Panella’s Lessons for Armed Defenders
Written by: Shawn Vincent
Criminal defense attorney Michael Panella has handled more than his fair share of self-defense cases, and he’s achieved extraordinary results for his clients. Mike completed his final year of law school while working full-time on the defense of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. He graduated just weeks before the high-profile June 2023 trial. After earning his bar card, Mike served as a public defender until opening a private practice so he could represent John DeRossett in a long-shot self-defense claim for a gunfight that erupted after a botched sheriff’s raid. The plain-clothed deputies admitted that they failed to identify themselves as law enforcement before trying to execute a warrantless arrest for a second-degree misdemeanor. Mike won John a complete exoneration by arguing an extraordinary appeal in the wake of a flawed decision by the judge who presided over a week-long self-defense immunity hearing. Mike has also successfully represented CCW Safe members who faced charges related to use of force incidents.
This summer, ten years after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Don West and Michael Panella joined me for a conversation about our work on the Zimmerman case and the lessons we have learned by representing armed defenders and studying other high-profile self-defense cases. In the coming weeks, I’ll share some of Mike and Don’s insights regarding the lessons learned from the Zimmerman case, but first, I wanted to present some of Mike’s general observations about common mistakes that armed defenders make and connect his comments to some of the touchstone self-defense cases we frequently discuss.
Mike says, “Too often a good person is charged with a serious crime because they thought they were doing the right thing and they end up inserting themselves into a situation where it really wasn’t necessary to use deadly force.” We’ve explored several cases where a law-abiding citizen with otherwise benevolent intentions exercised questionable (but, perhaps, understandable) judgment and created a tragic circumstance. That’s true of Ted Wafer who shot an unarmed teenage girl on his front porch. Wafer awoke to loud, persistent pounding on his front door at four in the morning. He had no way of knowing that the perpetrator was 19-year-old Reneshia McBride who was drunk, high, injured, and probably looking for help. Instead of dialing 9-1-1 and taking a defensible hard corner somewhere in his home, Wafer grabbed his pistol-grip shotgun and, during a pause in the pounding, opened the front door. When startled by the figure he saw standing there, he discharged the shotgun with fatal consequences. The 54-year-old man with no criminal history is currently serving a 17-year prison sentence for second-degree murder.
“It is no longer necessary to defend yourself against something that isn’t happening anymore,” Mike says. “When someone shoots too late … it’s painted out as revenge rather than self-defense.” Michael Drejka shot too late after Markis McGlockton shoved him violently to the ground in a convenience store parking lot. Moments before, Drejka had gotten into an argument with McGlockton’s partner Britnay Jacobs because she parked in a handicapped spot. Prone and fearful that McGlockton would continue the attack, Drejka drew his lawfully concealed pistol and pointed it at his attacker — but he did not fire immediately. Security camera video shows McGlockton change his posture and step backward before Drejka, after a momentary pause, fired a single fatal shot. Pinella’s County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri declined to arrest Drejka, sighting Florida’s stand-your-ground law, but he admitted to reporters “That pause gives me pause.” Ultimately, the State Attorney filed charges, and a jury convicted Drejka of manslaughter. One of those jurors told reporters, “I think he had the opportunity not to kill him.” The threat had abated when the defender pulled the trigger. Drejka is serving a 20-year prison sentence because he shot too late.
Mike says, ‘When I get a question of ‘Hey, if I use my gun in this scenario, am I justified?’ My answer is almost always going to be ‘no’ because they have had time in advance to think about it, and therefore to avoid the situation.” Sgt. Daniel Perry, a part-time Uber driver — frustrated by the sometimes violent protests he witnessed in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd — imagined a circumstance where he might get caught diving in a crowd of violent protestors and he would be forced to shoot someone in self-defense. He expressed this concern via a text messenger with a friend who, in reply, questioned whether such an action would be legal. “If they attack me or try to pull me out of my car then yes,” Perry responded. Jurors, when presented with this text conversation, along with evidence that Perry went out of his way to drive into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, had little sympathy for him and his decision to shoot demonstrator Garret Foster – even though Foster was carrying a rifle. It seemed like Perry intentionally created a circumstance hoping for justification to use his firearm. As an armed defender, if you can imagine a circumstance where the use of force may be necessary, then you should be able to visualize other solutions for solving the self-defense problem, including avoiding the situation altogether. If you know better, do better.
Mike notes that many of the most tragic self-defense shootings occur because the defender misinterpreted the perceived attacker’s intentions. The Ted Wafer case certainly fits this description. So does the case of Gereld Strebendt, the veteran Marine sniper who shot David Crofut after being rear-ended on a dark, remote section of highway. Strebendt couldn’t have known that Crofut had been drinking all evening and had won some cash playing video poker at a bar. After the crash, the inebriated Crofut shouted insults and threats at Strebendt as he walked towards him. Strebendt, who grabbed a rifle from his truck, backed slowly away, shouting at the stranger to stay back. At one point, Crofut reached into his pocket. Strebendt feared Crofut was reaching for a gun and fired a fatal shot. It turned out Crofut didn’t have a gun in his pocket; it was a wad of cash. Strebendt’s attorney speculated in his book about the case that Crofut may have wanted to offer Strebent cash to settle the accident rather than involve police and risk getting a DUI. Had Strebendt, who was already pointing a rifle at the aggressor, waited a moment longer, he may have been able to disambiguate Crofut’s intentions and save himself from a merciless criminal prosecution. Mike says, ‘Perhaps it comes down to giving a little bit of the benefit of the doubt to the other until it is confirmed that they don’t deserve it anymore, rather than jumping to the conclusion that there is no benefit of the doubt that should be extended to them.”
The purpose of the work we do in researching and exploring high-profile self-defense cases is to help good people from making tragic mistakes. Attorney Michael Panella’s observations can help. As an armed defender, one of the best ways to prevent a tragedy is to visualize circumstances in your life where the use of force may be necessary and make plans for how to address those self-defense problems – with the use of force being the last resort. It could mean installing a doorbell camera so you don’t have to open your front door to see who is there. It could mean avoiding potentially dangerous environments – like protests – especially if you have no good reason to be there. Armed defenders also have a responsibility to exercise good situational awareness, and that includes trying to understand the intentions of a perceived aggressor. Realizing that someone acting erratically could be intoxicated or suffering an injury could help you properly assess the true nature of a perceived threat. Finally, concealed carriers must know that the use of force is only justified when there is a reasonable fear of imminent great bodily harm or death. The circumstances in a use-of-force situation can change quickly, and if the imminent threat disappears, so does the justification for using deadly force.