Second in a series
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 firefighter who, for reasons unknown, was at the woman's door after a day of drinking with friends on St. Patrick's Day.
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 were at home.
Other states, including Hawaii and Idaho, approved laws to protect people from civil lawsuits if they are found not guilty of criminal charges.
In many of the states, such as 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.
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 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 they shouted 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 cellphone 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 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.
Michigan is 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 also 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. As he did so, he spotted a shadowy figure crouching 30 feet away. It was Marshall Coulter, 14, who had been in and out of jail. When Coulter made a sudden movement, Landry fired his gun, 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.
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 drunken 19-year-old, 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.
"I was not going to cower. I didn't want to be a victim in my own house," Wafer said at his trial.
But Wafer was convicted of second-degree murder and related charges Aug. 7.
"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."
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.
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.
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.