Can a doorbell ring justify a 'stand your ground' shooting?

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Dried egg is seen on the front of a house, Monday, April 17, 2023, where 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot Thursday after he went to the wrong address to pick up his younger brothers in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Andrew Lester had already gone to bed when the doorbell rang a little before 10 p.m. He got up, grabbed a gun and went to check it out. Seeing a Black male appearing to pull the handle of the front door, police say the 84-year-old white man opened fire. No questions asked.

Lester told police he believed someone was attempting to break into his house.

That belief — though wrong — could become a defense as Lester faces charges of first-degree assault and armed criminal action for shooting 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, an honor student who went to the wrong Kansas City address while attempting to pick up his younger siblings.

The case, which has stirred outrage across the country, could shine a light on one of the most common self-defense policies in the U.S — the right to protect yourself in your home. Most states have some version of a “castle doctrine," either by law or court precedent, that says residents don't have to retreat when threatened in their homes but instead can respond with physical force.

Missouri is one of about 30 states that also have “stand your ground” laws, which provide even broader self-defense rights regardless of the location.

MISSOURI'S SELF-DEFENSE LAW

A 2007 Missouri law allows people to use deadly force under certain circumstances, including against someone who “attempts to unlawfully enter a dwelling, residence or vehicle" that is occupied. The legislation, backed by the National Rifle Association, was passed overwhelmingly by the Republican-led Legislature.

Then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, enacted the law with fanfare by flying around the state to promote it.

The law "ensures law-abiding Missourians will not be punished when they use force to defend themselves and their family from attacks in their own home or vehicle,” Blunt said in a statement at the time.

In 2016, Missouri lawmakers overrode the veto of then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, to expand the castle doctrine into a broader stand your ground law — applying the no-retreat self-defense to people in “any other location such person has the right to be."

Missouri's law "provides wide latitude for people to use lethal force,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York, Cortland, whose research focuses on gun policy and politics and who wrote the book “Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights.”

Though no shots were fired, Missouri's self-defense laws also were in the spotlight in 2020 when St. Louis attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey waved guns at Black Lives Matter protesters passing by their home. The McCloskeys eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, but Republican Gov. Mike Parson pardoned them.

Last year, Missouri lawmakers considered legislation that would have presumed shooters claiming self-defense were acting reasonably — a measure dubbed the Make Murder Legal Act by a prosecutor opposing it. The bill failed.

A DOORBELL RING LEADS TO SHOTS

Lester turned himself in to authorities Tuesday, a day after being charged for shooting Yarl. Lester has no listed attorney, and his legal defense is not clear. But a document filed by police in support of charging Lester indicates that Lester thought he faced a threat.

“Lester stated he opened the interior door, and saw a black male approximately 6 feet tall pulling on the exterior storm door handle. He stated he believed someone was attempting to break into the house, and shot twice within a few seconds of opening the door,” according to the police statement. Lester told police he was "scared to death."

There apparently were no words exchanged before the shooting. Yarl told police he pressed the doorbell but didn't pull on the door. He said the man shot him in the head, then after he fell to the ground, shot him a second time in the arm. As Yarl got up to run, the man said, “Don't come around here,” according to the police report.

Some legal experts said Tuesday that although Lester could try to use the castle doctrine as a defense, prosecutors could counter that he did not have reasonable grounds to believe Yarl was breaking into his house.

Nothing in the law “allows someone to shoot first and ask questions later when someone innocently rings a doorbell. That’s something that UPS does on a daily basis, delivery drivers, children selling Girl Scout cookies,” said Ari Freilich, an attorney and state policy director with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"Our laws can’t be structured in a way that allow (guns) to be used that cavalierly,” Freilich added.

OTHER SIMILAR CASES

A stand your ground law had been in effect in Florida for over six years when it was elevated to national attention by the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old. George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who thought Martin looked suspicious, was acquitted after a trial in which his attorneys essentially used the law as a defense.

Similar laws have proliferated in states during the past two decades, and shootings with similarly disputable self-defense assertions have continued to occur. Unlike Zimmerman, some others have been convicted.

Attorneys used a self-defense argument in the trial of Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan for the 2020 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, which also has a stand your ground law. The white men claimed they chased Arbery, a Black man, because they thought he was a burglar. Attorneys argued that Travis McMichael raised a gun at Arbery hoping to de-escalate the situation but shot Arbery when he turned toward him as if to fight. All three were convicted of murder.

On Saturday, just two days after Yarl was shot, a woman looking for a friend’s house in upstate New York was fatally shot after the car in which she riding mistakenly pulled into the wrong driveway. Kaylin Gillis, 20, was traveling through the rural town of Hebron when homeowner, Kevin Monahan, 65, came out onto his porch and fired two shots, the local sheriff's office said. Monahan has been charged with second-degree murder. New York doesn't have a “stand your ground” law.

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Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth contributed to this report from Mission, Kansas.