By Letitia Stein
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - A manslaughter charge against a sheriff's deputy who shot and killed a black man carrying an air rifle was dismissed on Wednesday after the deputy argued that he acted in self-defense.
Broward County Sheriff's Deputy Peter Peraza, who is Hispanic, sought protection under the state's "stand your ground" law, said his attorney Eric Schwartzreich, who believes it is the first such case involving an on-duty officer shooting.
Circuit Court Judge Michael Usan agreed with the officer's claim that he was protecting himself when he killed Jermaine McBean, 33, at a south Florida apartment complex in July 2013.
Usan acknowledged in his ruling the national debate over the use of excessive force by police, especially against minorities.
"This case involves the tragic death of one man and the liberty of another," Usan wrote, adding that the political debate did not belong in the courtroom.
State prosecutors said in a statement they would appeal the decision, arguing that the officer was not entitled to have the charge dismissed under the "stand your ground" law.
"We believe that the facts of the case do not support that this was a justifiable shooting," the Broward State Attorney's office said in a statement, declining additional comment.
Attorney David Schoen, who represents McBean's mother and other family members, said, "It’s a slap in the face to every African American citizen of the country and all citizens." He said the family was devastated by the ruling.
The decision came the same day Baltimore prosecutors dropped all remaining charges against police officers in connection with the death of black detainee Freddie Gray.
The Florida shooting occurred after McBean bought an air rifle at a pawn shop. He was carrying it openly while walking home, prompting 911 emergency calls.
McBean did not comply with orders from officers to drop the weapon, according to the ruling.
A photograph later showed that he was wearing earbuds, Schoen said, adding that McBean's family believes he would not have heard the commands. The judge noted the officers said they did not see earbuds.
Peraza testified that he feared for his safety.
"Under the situation, he was defending himself," Schwartzreich said in a telephone interview, calling the death tragic. "There is no winner here."
Peraza is now suspended with pay, the Broward Sheriff's Office said. His suspension previously was unpaid.
"A life was lost, and this is a tragedy no matter how you look at it," Sheriff Scott Israel said in a statement.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)