Montana Jury rejects Stand-Your-Ground self-defense in Murder trial

A Montana jury recently rejected a “stand your ground” defense offered by a defendant charge with the murder of a German exchange student earlier this year. The defendant argued that he was only acting out of self-defense in protecting his home against intrusion by burglars, but the jury instead found the defendant guilty of deliberate homicide.

The victim in this case was a 17-year old German exchange student who was lured by the defendant into the defendant’s garage using a purse left in plain sight inside the open garage. Witnesses testified that the defendant and his girlfriend planned to capture suspects of prior burglarizes, believing that local law enforcement were not responding effectively. A hair stylist also testified that the defendant himself told her that he would be killing the teenagers who were responsible for the break-ins, and that he had been on a stake-out waiting for the burglars to accept his bait. When the exchange student finally entered the garage, the defendant fired multiple shotgun rounds at him, ultimately killing him on sight.

Self-Defense Laws
The defendant’s arguments fell under the purview of self-defense. Once a defendant successfully invokes the doctrine of self-defense, the burden typically shifts to the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting out of self-defense.

Most states have self-defense laws that fall within three different theories or categories: 1) stand your ground laws, 2) duty to retreat, and 3) castle doctrine:

  1. Stand Your Ground – Stand your ground laws generally state that any person is entitled to resort to deadly force if it is reasonably necessary to deter bodily injury or harm threatened by the attacker. Under such laws, a person who is threatened with imminent physical injury never needs to retreat – not even if there are several avenues of escape that would avoid harm to him. This doctrine falls on one extreme end of the spectrum of self-defense laws.
  2. Duty to Retreat – The polar opposite of the “stand your ground” doctrine is the duty to retreat, adopted by some states. Within this category of self-defense law, a person threatened by physical injury always has a duty to attempt to retreat before resorting to violence or deadly force. In other words, states that have adopted this form of self-defense law do not accept any self-defense argument as a matter of law where the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to retreat or escape but failed to do so – even if it means escaping from your own home.
  3. The Castle Doctrine – The “castle doctrine” lies as the median between stand-your-ground laws and the strict duty-to-retreat rule. As adopted by most states, the castle doctrine charges the defendant with a duty to retreat if retreat is reasonably likely to avoid injury, unless the defendant is in his own home. Under the castle doctrine, a homeowner/occupant facing an imminent threat of substantial bodily injury to himself or another in his own home may resort to deadly force to ward off the threat, if that is what is reasonably necessary under the circumstances. The traditional reasoning behind this doctrine is that a person’s home is a person’s “castle,” and every person has the right to defend the security of their castle against attackers. Massachusetts is one state that adopts the duty to retreat rule together with the castle doctrine.

In the murder case in Montana (which adopted the “stand your ground” theory of self-defense), the jury refused the verdict because the defendant knowingly and deliberately lured the burglar into the home only to shoot him on sight. But, as the defendant will likely argue on appeal, the defendant is the real victim here, not the wrongdoer. It makes no difference how the burglar entered; the fact of the matter is that the burglar entered into the home of an individual residing in a jurisdiction that allows him to “stand his ground” when faced with a threat of harm.

The Standard of Reasonableness
If this argument is raised on appeal in the Montana case, it would have to explain reasonableness of the defendant’s response to the burglary. Regardless of which category of self-defense law a jurisdiction adopts, the standard used by courts to measure the culpability of a defendant’s conduct is one of reasonableness. In other words, the lawfulness of the force used by the defendant is determined by what a prudent person would consider to be reasonably necessary under the circumstances to deter the harm threatened. The weight of the analysis falls on whether it was in fact reasonable for the defendant to lure the burglar into his own, and then to shoot him with multiple shotgun rounds on sight.

In Massachusetts, the law permits deadly force by defendant who is attacked in his own home only if it was reasonably necessary to deter the threat of great bodily harm to the defendant or his guests. In other words, Massachusetts courts look for moderation of force – deadly force may only be used to respond to a threat of serious physical harm or death, and may not be used where it is unreasonable for the defendant to fear threat of serious harm or death. In the Montana case, there was no substantial evidence that the defendant reasonably feared for his life – especially considering that the defendant had himself lured the victim into the home and was prepared, armed with a shotgun. In the Montana case, a defense attorney must persuade the court that the defendant could not have known whether the burglar was armed or not, and that was reasonable for the defendant to act to eliminate the threat before he himself was injured. The Montana defendant is currently facing a minimum 10 year prison sentence.

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