This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
Americans are more empowered than they have ever been by stand your ground or similar laws to use firearms to protect themselves and their property, though the laws are applied inconsistently across the country, a News21 analysis shows.
Since 2005, 31 states have adopted stronger self-defense laws, making it more difficult for police and prosecutors to prove a person breaks the law when acting in self-defense and making it more difficult to sue those people if they are found not guilty of a crime.
The laws have been invoked for everything from road rage that ended in gunfire to suspected thieves who were shot to death as they tried to flee.
In a recent Texas case, a woman is expected to claim self-defense for fatally shooting her neighbor through her locked front door because she thought he was trying to break in. The man she killed was an off-duty Houston firefighter who, for reasons unknown, was at the woman’s door following a day of drinking with friends on St. Patrick’s Day this year.
Almost all these laws came well before the highly publicized 2012 shooting death in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. News21 found 28 attempts in state legislatures to scale back self-defense laws after Martin’s death, but all of them failed.
Some states have expanded the castle doctrine, which allows people greater leeway to act in self-defense in their homes. Texas and Louisiana, for example, passed laws that treat self-defense in workplaces and vehicles the same as if a person was at home.
Other states, including Hawaii and Idaho, approved laws to protect people from civil lawsuits if they are found innocent of criminal charges.
In many of the states, like North Carolina and Mississippi, a person in a public place does not have to retreat from a confrontation before shooting to kill in self-defense. The same states also placed a greater burden on prosecutors, requiring that they prove a person was not acting in self-defense to win a conviction.
“I think the reason most states have adopted this (no duty to retreat in public) is because the nature of homicidal violence in our country is normally manifested in the form of a firearm,” said legal expert Geoffrey Corn of South Texas College of Law. “Stand your ground is now the majority rule in the United States.”
However, News21 has found the likelihood of a person being charged with or convicted of a crime after a claim of self-defense involving a firearm may depend more on the state or region where the shooting occurred than the circumstances of the case.
Even cases in the same county produced disparate outcomes, News21 found, based on a review of 200 cases in Michigan, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Arizona — six of 31 states to recently expand their laws.
The Duty to Retreat
Two cases in Arizona illustrate the contrasts.
John Chester Stuart and Thomas Orville Beasley hurled obscenities through the windows of their cars in the moments leading to Beasley’s shooting death around 9 p.m. at a Phoenix intersection in January 2008.
According to Beasley’s wife, Stuart illegally passed them moments before both cars stopped side by side at a red light and rolled their windows down. Beasley had been drinking.
After shouting profanities at each other, Beasley got out of his vehicle and approached Stuart, allegedly threatening him. From the inside of his truck, Stuart pulled out his .40-caliber handgun and shot the unarmed man in the face, later claiming that Beasley reached into his truck when he fired.
Three years later, and five miles away, David Ross Appleton and Paul Thomas Pearson were shouting at another Phoenix intersection, their windows rolled down. Appleton had finished eating dinner with friends. Pearson was talking on his cell phone with his cousin.
Appleton said he was upset because Pearson blocked him from turning left at a red light.
After the light turned green, Pearson followed Appleton for about two miles, telling his cousin over the phone that he saw Appleton run a red light. When Appleton pulled off the road and into a pharmacy parking lot, Pearson followed.
He got out of his vehicle and approached Appleton’s Toyota FJ Cruiser on foot, unarmed, cellphone in hand. Appleton said Pearson tried to choke him through the window of his SUV, so he fired his gun at Pearson, killing him.
Stuart is in prison. Appleton was never indicted.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, the prosecutor in the Arizona county where the two shootings took place, said the cases reached different outcomes because more evidence was available in Stuart’s case than in Appleton’s. He believes Appleton, who had a history of road rage behavior, would have been convicted if he had been indicted.
“A grand jury made their decision, and I have to live with it,” Montgomery said.
In Arizona, there is no duty to retreat in public. State law forbids prosecutors from raising the issue to make their case.
“It means that a jury is never allowed to consider whether running away, whether retreat would have adequately protected the defendant,” said Corn, of the South Texas College of Law.
“You still have to be the victim of unlawful violence,” he said. “You still have to face an imminent threat, and you still have to use proportionate force.”
In two states, Michigan and Texas, people can use lethal force to stop a fleeing criminal.
Luis Alonzo Guerrero was inside his Tacos El Indio truck shortly before 3 a.m. in a Houston industrial neighborhood when 24-year-old Benito Pantoja snatched away a tip jar from the truck and started to flee June 5, 2010.
He didn’t make it far.
The 50-year-old truck owner chased the thief with his .38-caliber revolver and shot twice, fatally wounding the Pantoja.
The tip jar contained $20.29.
Two years later in the same city, Troy Rector, who was mentally ill, entered a convenience store, stole a pack of beer around midnight, then tried to flee.
The 45-year-old didn’t make it very far either. A 19-year-old clerk confronted Rector outside the store and gunned him down.
Neither the clerk nor the taco truck driver were indicted by a grand jury because Texas law allows a person to use deadly force to regain stolen property from a criminal if the theft occurs at night.
Corn said the Texas law is a significant departure from traditional self-defense theory.
“The law always treated life as more valuable than property — even the life of a criminal. So that’s why you couldn’t use deadly force just to protect property,” Corn said, “Because the harm you’re causing is legally greater than the harm you’re avoiding.”
“You’re trading a life for property. And so, in common law, homicide, homicidal force was never permitted just to protect property,” he said.
In Monroe County, Michigan, near Temperance, Thomas Wallace was inside his mobile home when a man and his girlfriend robbed him at knifepoint. The man cut Wallace with a knife and took off with his television.
As soon as the two left the trailer, Wallace grabbed his gun, ran outside and started shooting at the man who robbed him. The television thief was sitting inside his getaway vehicle when he was killed.
A grand jury indicted Wallace on a battery of charges that carried the possibility of life in prison. But Wallace accepted a plea offer to a misdemeanor weapons charge that came with 28 days in jail and probation.
In the same county 10 months earlier, two armed men tied up Robert Allen Goupill and his family with duct tape, then took off with the family’s cordless telephones, jewelry and marijuana plants.
After the men left, Goupill freed himself from the tape, grabbed his shotgun and chased after them in the snow for about 200 yards. One escaped. The other didn’t. Goupill shot him in the back as he was halfway inside the backseat of his car.
Goupill was later convicted of manslaughter and a marijuana charge, and is now in a Michigan prison serving a minimum of three-and-a-half years.
Jack Simms, assistant prosecutor for Monroe County, said the cases may have reached different outcomes because of the distance Goupill traveled in pursuit of his assailant, compared with Wallace’s case, which occurred right outside of his home.
Michigan is also one of 18 states with self-defense laws that give greater leeway to homeowners who shoot in self-defense if they believe they are being burglarized.
“A prosecutor is going to be less likely now to file a criminal charge against a person who exercises self-defense — say in the home or when they’re being attacked — but it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said William Maze, president of Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.
Louisiana is one of those 18 states. So when Merritt Landry heard his dogs barking early in the morning, he grabbed his .45-caliber handgun and stepped out the door and into the gated courtyard of his New Orleans home. The neighborhood where Landry lived had experienced multiple crimes recently, the police report said.
As he stepped into his courtyard, Landry spotted a shadowy figure crouching 30 feet away. It was Marshall Coulter, a 14-year-old boy who had been in and out of jail. When Coulter made a sudden movement, Landry reacted, firing his gun and hitting the teen in the back of the head.
The shot did not kill him. Landry never went to trial. A grand jury refused all charges.
In Michigan, Theodore Wafer told officers he woke up to violent banging on his door in the middle of the night last November at his Detroit-area home. On the other side of the door stood a drunk 19-year-old female, who had crashed her vehicle into a nearby tree hours earlier.
Claiming both that he feared for his life and that his shotgun went off accidentally, Wafer fired a fatal round into Renisha McBride’s face through the screen door that separated them.
“I was not going to cower. I didn’t want to be a victim in my own house,” Wafer said at his trial.
But a jury rejected his self-defense claim. Wafer was convicted of second-degree murder and related charges Aug. 7 and is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 20.
“We have a right to self-defense, but we also have a right of free speech and a right to do variety of other things,” Maze said. “If these things are not exercised reasonably, all of a sudden someone finds themselves in legal trouble, and it’s expensive to hire a lawyer, it’s risky to go to a trial, and as we saw in this case, a jury can convict.”
Tracking The Impact
In early August, the American Bar Association released a report following a national study on the impact of stand your ground laws. Among the findings were that stand your ground states experienced an increase in homicides and that the law was applied unpredictably and inconsistently across racial lines.
The study group recommended creating a national database to track cases and cautioned that the adverse effects of the law appear to outweigh its possible benefits, saying people who claimed self-defense were sufficiently protected before stand your ground laws were passed. Read the full report here.
News21 asked prosecutor’s associations and bar associations across the country what they do to monitor the application of self-defense laws and found few appear to actively track the law’s effect.
Some states have tried.
In 2012, the Louisiana Legislature made it mandatory for law enforcement to conduct full investigations of all homicides involving a self-defense claim. This year, it directed the state’s law institute to study the law’s effects.
A similar bill in Texas would have made it mandatory for law enforcement to track and investigate all self-defense cases, but the measure died in committee.
In Arizona’s Maricopa County, the county attorney’s office established a special review panel of senior prosecutors to consider “colorable” self-defense cases before charging.
Montgomery, the Maricopa County Attorney, said he got the idea from a similar panel that reviews officer-involved shootings. The decision was not tied to an increase in self-defense shootings, he said.
From 2011 through 2013, the board reviewed 63 cases and turned down 26, meaning about 41 percent of all cases reviewed were not charged because they were considered justified.
In 2011, about 58 percent of cases reviewed were charged, compared with 40 percent in 2013, records show.
“I think we’re seeing fewer instances in which people are claiming self-defense that really requires us to take a review of it,” Montgomery said.
One of the cases prosecuted by Maricopa County was that of Donald Jackson Taylor, who shot and killed an unarmed transient man with a shotgun from 18 feet away in 2012. The man allegedly trespassed on Taylor’s unfenced yard and would not follow Taylor’s orders to get off his property.
Taylor was charged with a weapons violation because he had a felony conviction on his record and was not allowed to carry a weapon. He pleaded guilty to the weapons charges and a got a maximum sentence of three years in prison, but was never charged with murder or manslaughter.
Jon LaFlamme is the News21 Weil Fellow.
Contributing are Sam Stites and Wade Millward.