Is Missouri’s "stand your ground" law applicable in last week’s shooting of a teenage Black boy who knocked on a white man’s door by mistake?
Lester, 84, was charged with two felony counts of first degree
assault and armed criminal action after shooting 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, a high
school student who rang his doorbell by accident, Clay County Prosecuting
Attorney Zachary Thompson said at a news conference, reported NBC News. Thompson said the shooting
had a “racial component.”
In the aftermath of the shooting in North Kansas
City, a growing number of Yarl’s supporters expressed concern that the gunman
would be protected by the 2016 Missouri law, in which a would-be shooter
defending life or property does not have to retreat before taking violent
“As a mother of four, I’m completely distraught at
the possibility that I could send my child to play with a friend next door and
something could happen and that child would suffer instead of holding the adult
accountable for their actions,” said Jalisa Davis, an organizer with
Decarcerate KC, one of several grassroots groups supporting Yarl and demanding
sad that we live in a world that would function that way,” Davis said.
During the news conference, Thompson cited the law
but did not give an opinion on whether it might apply in this case. Earlier in
the week, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said investigators would
consider whether Lester was justified under the "stand your ground"
law, according to the
Kansas City Star.
Yarl was trying to pick up his siblings around 9:45
p.m. Thursday when he mistook the Northeast 115th Street home for one a block
over on Northeast 115th Terrace, police
said. Yarl told them he rang the doorbell and noticed the owner took longer
than expected to answer, according to one of the family’s attorneys, Lee
Merritt. Merritt said the man eventually opened the door and said “Don’t come
back around here” before shooting Yarl. (Lester told police no words were
exchanged during the incident, according to the probable cause statement.)
Witnesses told police they saw Yarl knocking on neighbors’ doors for help,
according to the statement. James Lynch, who lives nearby, soon
ran out to help.
Yarl had not gone into the home before allegedly
being shot through a glass door, according to the probable cause
The teen was taken to the hospital. Lester was
initially taken into custody and released after 24 hours per Missouri law,
which states that felony suspects can only be held up to 24 hours until charges
are filed. Civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Merritt, both representing Yarl
and his family, condemned Lester’s initial release from police custody in a
statement early on Monday. When the felony charges were filed,
an arrest warrant was issued for Lester, who surrendered himself on Tuesday
afternoon, according to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office.
Attorney Bill Tackett, who has worked in Missouri
for nearly 40 years, said it seems unlikely the homeowner will be able to
effectively use "stand your ground" as a defense. Tackett said it
would only apply if Yarl threatened the man’s safety. He also acknowledged the
state’s “castle doctrine,” which gives residents the right to defend themselves
with force while inside their home.
“Castle doctrine doesn’t apply unless he’s an intruder.
And there’s no 'stand your ground' because there’s no threat,” Tackett said of
Yarl, adding that Yarl could be classified as a trespasser but, still, shooting
a trespasser would result in criminal charges.
Ralph Yarl.via Ben Crump Law
“These doctrines don’t apply to someone who’s
nonthreatening, knocking on the door on the stoop of a house. Otherwise, that
means anybody who comes to your door, you can put a bullet in their head and
it’s OK. You can’t do that.”
"stand your ground" law has been shrouded in controversy
since it was passed in 2016. The law was part of a wide-ranging gun bill that
also allowed people to carry concealed weapons without obtaining a permit.
Missouri has seen a drastic rise in gun deaths since adopting the law,
according to a February 2022 study published in the
journal JAMA Network Open. “These findings suggest that adoption of
SYG laws across the US was associated with increases in violent deaths, deaths
that could potentially have been avoided,” the researchers
Lester told police he shot Yarl because he thought
the teen was trying to break in, according to a probable cause statement from a
Kansas City Police Department detective. But NBC News legal analyst Danny
Cevallos estimated that defense wouldn’t hold up — neither would the
"stand your ground" law nor castle doctrine — because Yarl rang
“Burglars don’t ring doorbells,” Cevallos said.
“This all comes down to defense of property, the only thing that could apply is
he thought someone was breaking into his occupied dwelling. Then you can use
deadly force. He rang the doorbell, that’s evidence he wasn’t trying to
break in. The doorbell is very bad for the defendant here.”
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