US 'stand your ground' laws tested in recent shootings of German student, 2 others in homes

Matt Volz And Matthew Brown / The Associated Press
May 1, 2014 03:25 AM

Byron Smith re-enters court before the jury made their ruling at the Morrison County Courthouse, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, in Little Falls, Minn. Smith, who shot and killed 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer during a 2012 Thanksgiving Day break-in, was convicted of premeditated murder. The jury took only about three hours to soundly reject his claim of self-defense. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles) MANDATORY CREDIT; ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS OUT; MAGS OUT; TWIN CITIES TV OUT.

HELENA, Mont. - A Montana man is accused of setting a trap and blindly blasting a shotgun into his garage, killing a 17-year-old German exchange student. A Minnesota man is convicted of lying in wait in his basement for two teenagers and killing them during a break-in.

The two recent cases have intensified the debate about America's so-called "stand your ground" laws: Do laws that allow private citizens to protect their property also let them set a trap and wait for someone to kill?

More than 30 states have laws expanding the self-defence principle known as the "castle doctrine," echoing the old saying, "my home is my castle."

Most of these changes have come since Florida in 2005 became the first state to interpret that doctrine to apply outside the home with a measure known as the "stand your ground" law.

These laws make it far easier for a person to shoot someone and avoid prosecution by saying they felt an imminent danger — whether or not the person who was shot was armed.

"We don't want it to be easy to be able to prosecute people. But we want to be able to hold individuals accountable when they have stepped outside the bounds of society," David LaBahn, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said Wednesday.

The principle came under scrutiny in the 2012 shooting of an unarmed Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighbourhood watch volunteer who was following the 17-year-old. George Zimmerman was acquitted last year after arguing self-defence.

The Montana and Minnesota cases involve people whose home had been burgled and said they were afraid of it happening again. Prosecutors say they lured intruders into fatal encounters.

In Montana, Markus Kaarma told investigators his Missoula home had been burgled twice within the last week before Sunday's shooting death of 17-year-old Diren Dede, of Hamburg, Germany. Kaarma told his hairdresser he had stayed up three nights waiting to shoot a kid, the woman told investigators.

The night of the shooting, Kaarma and his partner, Janelle Pflager, left their garage door open. Pflager left her purse in the garage "so that they would take it," she told a police officer. She also set up a video baby monitor and installed motion sensors, prosecutors said.

After midnight, they heard the sensors trip. Pflager turned to the video monitor and saw a man in the garage. Kaarma took his shotgun and went outside.

He told investigators he heard metal on metal and without speaking fired four times — sweeping the garage with three low shots and a high fourth shot. Dede was hit in the head and the arm.

Montana's law, passed in 2009, says a person is justified in using deadly force if they believe it necessary to prevent an assault or a forcible felony.

Kaarma's attorney, Paul Ryan, said that law shifts the burden to prosecutors, who will have to prove that deadly force wasn't justified, he said.

Kaarma didn't intend to kill Dede, Ryan said. "He was scared for his life."

Because the laws typically leave it up to the shooter to decide if a danger exists, prosecutors often have no way to challenge such a claim. LaBahn said the case in Missoula appeared to reflect the same concerns raised repeatedly by prosecutors in Florida.

"It doesn't sound to me that a reasonable person is going to shoot through a garage door," LaBahn said, adding that other factors may emerge.

Minnesota law allows the use of deadly force in a home to prevent a felony, but it must be considered a reasonable response.

Byron Smith, a 65-year-old retiree, unsuccessfully used that defence to justify his shooting of Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, after the cousins broke into his home in 2012. Smith's attorney said burglars had previously hit his client's home, and he was afraid.

Smith was convicted of premeditated murder Tuesday. Prosecutors said Smith moved his truck to make it look as though no one was home, and waited in the basement with food, water and two guns.

Brady entered the basement first, and Smith shot him three times, saying "You're dead." He waited until Kifer followed, and he shot her. "You're dying," he told her, according to an audio recording he made.

___

Brown reported from Billings, Montana. AP writers Amy Forliti in Little Falls, Minnesota and Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.


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