Again and again American juries, including one in Reno, Nev., on Friday, are being asked to adjudicate a thorny legal question under a new breed of “stand-your-ground” laws: What’s the difference between self-defense and murder?
Verdict by verdict, such cases are educating US gun owners on the limits of the law, and, at least to some extent, clarifying for all Americans that the laws rarely protect people who willingly put themselves into potentially dangerous situations, and then open fire.
Stand-your-ground laws have their legal roots in an 1895 US Supreme Court case, where justices ruled that a homeowner has the right to “stand his ground” to save his or her own life from an unprovoked attack. Since Florida expanded that right into public spaces in 2005, over 30 other states have followed suit, in essence giving gun owners more leeway to claim self-defense.
After six hours of deliberation, the Reno jury found retired school teacher Wayne Burgarello not guilty on murder charges stemming from last year’s killing of an unarmed trespasser, Cody Devine, who was squatting in an abandoned, rundown rental unit that Mr. Burgarello owned.
Burgarello said he felt threatened when a prone Mr. Devine raised an object, which turned out to be a flashlight. Prosecutors, citing testimony from a woman who survived the barrage of gun shots, said an angry Burgarello came to the duplex looking to exact revenge on repeat trespassers, and opened fire on unarmed, nonthreatening people without provocation or cause.
The not-guilty verdict is one in a number of recent cases where juries are grappling with what critics say is political and cultural fall-out from laws that liberate gun owners from any “duty to retreat” before responding to a bodily threat with deadly force.
For some, stand-your-ground laws have “contributed to an atmosphere of vigilante justice in our society," Tanya Clay House, director of public policy for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, told the Associated Press Friday.
The laws first came under public scrutiny in 2012 when Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Many Americans were shocked that local police refused to arrest Zimmerman, and some took to the streets in protest. A state prosecutor later did charge him with murder, but he was acquitted a year later.
That verdict was unsatisfying to many critics, given that the jury never addressed the fact that an armed Zimmerman profiled Trayvon as a criminal and pursued him into a darkened part of a condo complex, where Trayvon attacked his pursuer with his fists. Ironically, a man who opened fire on Zimmerman during a recent road rage incident is now claiming that he was legally standing his ground under threat from Zimmerman.
With fits and starts, juries have begun to tease out the difference between vigilantism and self-defense in stand-your-ground cases.
A Florida jury last year convicted Michael Dunn on murder charges for shooting into a car full of people after an argument over loud music outside a convenience store. One teenager was killed.
Also last year, a Montana jury convicted Markus Kaarma, who killed a German exchange student after, in essence, laying a trap for a burglar.
In Minnesota, which still requires those under attack to try to retreat before responding with force, a jury convicted Byron Smith on premeditated murder charges for lying in wait in his basement before killing two teenagers who broke into his house.
On May 15, prosecutors in Utah also addressed the vigilantism question, deciding to not indict a concealed-weapons carrier who was widely hailed as a hero for interrupting a carjacking and killing the perpetrator.
Police said the shooting was justified because the carjacker lunged at the gun owner before he was killed by a single gun shot to the chest. Utah law also allows weapons to be used by citizens to stop the commission of a forcible felony, including car theft.
"I don't think this man got out of the car saying 'I'm going to shoot this guy,'" Orem, Utah, police Captain Ned Jackson told the AP this month. "The suspect really is the one making the decisions driving the whole thing. I think it's admirable he [the shooter] heard someone's screams for help and stepped in to help."
The Burgarello trial, however, suggested juries and prosecutors are still wrestling with where to set the limits of justifiable self-defense, especially in cases where death could easily have been avoided.
The jury in Reno that freed Burgarello heard powerful testimony about the night Devine was killed, including from a woman who survived the onslaught with a bullet wound to the arm. She said that Devine did nothing provocative that should have caused anyone to shoot.
But defense attorney Theresa Ristenpart argued that the shooting was fully justified. “In a split-second decision ... he shot because he believed his life was threatened in a bedroom where no one should have been,” she told the jury.
For some commentators, such courtroom debates are helping to at least partly clarify the legal boundaries of stand-your-ground laws, while also providing powerful cautionary tales for gun owners who carry weapons in public for self-defense.
“Almost every day there are stories in the news dealing with rage and the inability to cope with even the slightest inconvenience or disagreement,” writes Scoot, a popular radio host in New Orleans, on the WWL radio blog. “For all gun owners in America who have issues with rage and anger, please remember that the right to own a gun does not grant you the right to use a gun to vent your rage and anger.”