Justifiable homicides increasing

Marc Fisher,Dan Eggen
MARK FOLEY / Associated Press archive 1993

When Billy Kuch knocked on the wrong door, he had a cigarette in one hand and a shirt in the other. The homeowner, Gregory Stewart, stepped outside, stood his ground, fired a round from his semiautomatic into Kuch's chest and, in the eyes of the state of Florida, committed no crime.

Three years after that shooting, in a Land O' Lakes subdivision called Stagecoach Village, Kuch is alive but damaged by his injuries and the shock of being shot at point-blank range. Stewart is free but lying low, still sought out by neighbors and others who want him to account for his actions.

"I have no problem with people owning guns to protect themselves," says Bill Kuch, Billy's father. "But somehow, we've reached the point where the shooter's word is the law. The victim doesn't even get his day in court. I don't think most Americans realize it but that's where we are."

In Florida and across the country, "Stand Your Ground" laws -- the same kind of legislation that authorities cited for not arresting a neighborhood watch volunteer after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in February -- have coincided with a sharp increase in justifiable-homicide cases.

Prosecutors still reject many claims of self-defense under the new law, and no long-term studies definitively tie the rise in justifiable killings to the passage of laws that relieve citizens of the responsibility to back away from threats. But the Martin case has focused a spotlight on incidents in which the mere statement that people feel endangered allows them to, depending on your sense of what's right, defend themselves against thugs or act like vigilantes.

This sharp turn in American law -- expanding the right to defend one's home from attack into a more general right to meet force with force in any public place -- began in Florida in 2005 and has spread to more than 30 other states as a result of a campaign by the National Rifle Association and a corporate-backed group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which promotes conservative bills.

Florida has been at the fore of expanding gun rights for decades, ever since an NRA lobbyist named Marion Hammer, the NRA's first female president, became a force in the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

When she helped write the Stand Your Ground bill and circulated it, some police chiefs and other law enforcement officials warned that the measure would make it hard to convict people of murder. Defendants would simply claim self-defense and challenge prosecutors to prove they were lying.

But those concerns were heavily outweighed by lawmakers' desire to send a message to taxpayers that the justice system would no longer consider suspect those who defend themselves against attack.

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and amid images of lawlessness in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many Floridians, and Americans generally, felt less safe and believed the justice system could not protect victims, said a study of Stand Your Ground laws by the National District Attorneys Association.

In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house.

Prosecutors decided not to charge Workman but many lawmakers pronounced themselves appalled that he had to endure months of uncertainty before being cleared.

Hammer told legislators her bill would protect citizens who simply defended themselves: "You can't expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself and say, 'Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me, or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?' "

The Florida Senate passed the bill unanimously.

The law says a person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm."

In response, a pro-gun-control group put up ads aimed at visiting tourists alerting them to "Florida's Shoot First Law."

These days, Democrats and Republicans alike wonder whether the law should be tweaked to give prosecutors more leeway to determine whether a shooter really was in danger when the trigger was pulled.

Asked about the Martin case last week, former Gov. Jeb Bush, initially an enthusiastic backer of the legislation, said, "Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back."

Hammer sees no cause to refine or backtrack. Neither she nor NRA officials responded to requests for comment but Hammer told the Palm Beach Post that officials should not be "stampeded by emotionalism. ... This law is not about one incident. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law."

Billy Kuch was a troubled kid. As an adolescent, he'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and he'd been arrested a couple of times for driving under the influence. He drank too much and he knew it.

So when he was out at a party that August night on Golden Eagle Drive near the intersection of Gun Smoke Drive, he decided he was too blitzed to drive home. He left the party to lock his keys inside his car so he couldn't get behind the wheel later that night.

Kuch stumbled back toward the party but forgot which beige stucco house was hosting the bash. He knocked on the wrong door, the one belonging to Gregory Stewart, a 32-year-old homeowner who did not appreciate having his wife and baby disturbed by a drunk kid after 4 in the morning. Kuch went away and texted his sister that he was totally confused about what was going on.

Then Kuch found what he thought was the party house and tried the door. But he'd landed at Stewart's place again.

This time, after Kuch turned the doorknob, Stewart told his wife to call 911. Then he grabbed his Smith & Wesson semiautomatic and went into his front yard.

Stewart said he kept asking Kuch to leave but Kuch, thinking the guys at the party were playing a joke on him, stayed.

"Don't make me shoot you," warned the 6-foot-1 Stewart, according to police records. "I don't want to shoot you."

Kuch, who stands 5-foot-9, raised his hands, asked for a light and lurched toward the homeowner. Stewart fired.

Stewart broke down in tears when police arrived. "I could have given him a light," he said. But he said he had felt threatened.

Kuch spent five weeks in a coma. He woke with no recollection of the incident.

Before the shooting, Kuch had supported the Stand Your Ground law, his parents said. Stewart's view of the law is not known. He did not return repeated calls, and no court ever asked, because Stewart was never brought before a judge.

Stewart was arrested that night but Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia concluded that his actions were "justified."

In the seven years since it was enacted, the Florida law and others like it have become an effective defense for an increasing number of people who have shot others, according to state records and media reports.

Justifiable homicides in Florida have tripled, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data. Other states have seen similar increases, FBI statistics show.

In the five years before the law's passage, Florida prosecutors declared "justifiable" an average of 12 killings by private citizens each year. (Most justifiable killings are committed by police officers; those cases, which have also tripled, are not included in these statistics.) But in the five years after the law passed, that number spiked to an average of 36 justifiable killings per year.

Neither the state nor Florida's association of prosecutors declares the jump in justifiable homicides to be a direct result of the new law but the state public defender's association does draw that connection, as have advocacy groups opposed to Stand Your Ground laws.

The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national group, argues that Stand Your Ground is not just a technical expansion of the castle doctrine, the ancient legal concept that allows property owners to defend their home, but rather a barrier to prosecution of genuine criminals.

"It's almost like we now have to prove a negative -- that a person was not acting in self-defense, often on the basis of only one witness, the shooter," said Steven Jansen, the group's vice president.

The Tampa Bay Times has identified at least 130 cases in Florida in which shooters cited the Stand Your Ground law to defend their actions; in at least 50 of those cases, prosecutors decided against bringing any charges.

After her victory in Florida, Hammer, the NRA lobbyist, brought the new law to the Criminal Justice Task Force of ALEC, the conservative legislative group. The task force made the Florida law a model to be presented in every state capital.

Since then, 32 states have copied at least part of Florida's statute, according to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. The NRA and other conservative groups have continued to push the issue in other states, though the effort has stalled amid outcry over the Martin case.

Liberal groups are targeting ALEC for its role in spreading the laws, including a protest outside its Washington headquarters last week.

In the past few days, after the black advocacy group Color of Change led an online campaign urging major businesses to cut ties with ALEC, three huge companies -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods -- announced they will end their membership in the council.

ALEC has sought to distance itself from the Martin case, saying it was not involved in drafting the Florida law.

But minutes of ALEC meetings describe "the continuing success of the Castle Doctrine Act throughout the states" and ALEC's 2007 legislative scorecard lists the spread of Florida's law as a highlight of the group's successes.

The Washington Post