Proportionality of punishment is a goal of American law. In the criminal justice system, we don’t execute a person for stealing a pack of cigarettes or give someone a $125 ticket for rape.
But when it comes to castle doctrine — the colloquial term for letting a person use lethal force to protect his or her property — it’s shoot first, ask questions later. The law is based on the principle of self defense, but in practice, property owners have killed people who may have been doing little more than attempting to steal a $85 DVD player, if that.
In Missouri, a landlord went after midnight to check on one of his properties. Seeing someone climbing out of a back window with what he thought was a weapon, the landlord shot and killed Sylvester Williams, 47, who was unarmed.
At 6 p.m. one winter evening, an off-duty police detective was sitting at home when a burglar entered his home. The detective shot and killed the thief, sixteen-year-old Jaleel Jackson, who was unarmed.
In Texas, a man mistakenly rang the doorbell of what he thought was his friend’s house. The woman inside, nervous about the stranger, brought out her gun, and as James Green, 29, went around back to try the door, she shot and killed him.
“It’s really an unfortunate accident. It wasn’t an intruder,” one of the woman’s neighbors told the local TV station.
Some fears are justified, but in the dark of many nights, the calculations that lead someone to pull a trigger can be muddled. Is that really a weapon in his hand, or is it an illusion caused by a heady mix of fear, adrenaline, poor lighting and the vague knowledge that the law is on your side?
In none of the incidents above were the killers charged for the death of another person. Trayvon Martin is the face of overreaching stand-your-ground and castle doctrine laws, but he’s far from the only case.
In Steeleville, Missouri, the death of Paul Dart on July 20, 2013 at the hands of James Crocker has grabbed headlines. Crocker, who owns a piece of land along the Meramac River, had grown weary of rowdy crowds floating down the river, beers in hand and merriment abounding.
Robert Burgess was floating down the river on a canoe and had to stop . They pulled up to a gravel bar, and as he was relieving himself, Crocker came out irate, brandishing a gun. The situation quickly escalated, and some in Burgess’ group of about four dozen, began throwing rocks.
Police said Crocker told them, “I just shot the one closest to me.” For his proximity, Paul Dart, 48, died of a gunshot wound.
Crocker has been charged with second-degree murder, but now it seems Missouri’s castle doctrine is coming into play. As the trial progresses, the debate is being steered towards whether or not the patch of gravel that became a crime scene was indeed part of Crocker’s property or not.
In Missouri, property rights along rivers are somewhat ambiguous. Sometimes, property begins at the vegetation line, often a few feet back from the shore. Other times, riverside property lines extend halfway into the river. If that was the case with Crocker’s land, that would mean the gravel patch where he killed Paul Dart was part of Crocker’s private property, potentially giving him the right to shoot Dart.
Castle doctrine and stand-your-ground laws vary by state, so if you own property you may want to familiarize yourself with local laws before putting a gun within easy reach in the dark of night. But the more apt question might be: does a land title really give you the right to kill another person?