News Column

Self-defense Laws Put in Spotlight

July 22, 2013

Torsten Ove

The George Zimmerman verdict in Florida has reignited an old debate: How far can you go in defending yourself in America?

In 30 states, including Pennsylvania, "Stand Your Ground" laws are on the books.

But they're under fire from high places in the wake of the July 13 acquittal of Mr. Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking through the gated townhouse community where he was staying.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the laws last week, saying they "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense" and may encourage more violence.

Supporters say they reduce crime and provide protection to citizens who can't depend on police in crime-plagued communities.

Mr. Zimmerman's defense did not directly invoke his state's law, one of the nation's first when it was passed in 2005. But the judge instructed the jury, using language mandated by the law, that Mr. Zimmerman "had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground" if he was attacked.

That language is typical of Stand Your Ground laws. All are based on the old concept of the "castle doctrine," which provides that a homeowner is not obligated to retreat in his home and can legally kill an intruder.

But Stand Your Ground takes it a step further, expanding the right to situations outside the home.

Under Pennsylvania's expanded law, passed in 2011 and pushed by the National Rifle Association, residents can legally kill someone almost anywhere -- including public spaces and the workplace -- if they are attacked.

The big difference from the Florida law is that in Pennsylvania an attacker must be showing a deadly weapon before a threatened citizen can open fire.

One of the sponsors of the bill, Rep. Scott Perry, R-York, explained in 2011 that the law was meant to "tip the scales of justice back in favor of the law-abiding citizen."

Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, another sponsor of the bill, said last week that the residents of the poor neighborhoods he represents need to be able to defend themselves in the streets because no one else will.

"I would much prefer that we live in a perfect world where the police protect everyone," he said. "The people in my communities are under siege. Law enforcement and the judicial system haven't been able to protect them."

The state's district attorneys, however, opposed the law as unnecessary and still do. Most self-defense scenarios, they said, were already covered by the old law.

"We felt that the law as it was adequately provided for individuals to defend themselves," said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. "We did not see cases in Pennsylvania of people being prosecuted for legitimately defending themselves."

When it became apparent that Pennsylvania's "castle doctrine" would be expanded, however, the association pushed for the provision about the deadly weapon and others prohibiting deadly force against police or during the commission of a crime. Those provisions make Pennsylvania's law more restrictive than those in most other states.

"The Trayvon Martin case would have been prosecuted differently here," said Mr. Wheatley. "The threshold is a harder threshold" because the Martin youth didn't have a weapon.

While no one keeps track in Pennsylvania, only a few cases in the state since 2011 might fall under the Stand Your Ground umbrella.

In 2011, a Montgomery County man shot and killed a 19-year-old man and wounded his father after both chased him with baseball bats in his driveway. He was not charged.

In Somerset County, also in 2011, Carl Woolley used a compound bow to kill Tony Bittinger, who had been having an affair with Mr. Woolley's wife.

Police said that after Mr. Bittinger approached Mr. Woolley at his house with a club, Mr. Woolley retreated into his home, came back out on the porch with the bow and shot Mr. Bittinger as he advanced up the steps.

The district attorney's office did not prosecute him.

While some studies have indicated that states with Stand Your Ground laws have more homicides than those that don't, it's difficult to determine how effective those laws really are in reducing crime because many of them are new and homicide scenarios are so different from case to case.

But those who oppose the laws say the idea of not backing down encourages confrontation and could drive violence up.

Shira Goodman, executive director of the activist group CeaseFirePA, said some people may feel emboldened to stand their ground and escalate a situation rather than defuse it.

Beyond that, she said, the laws are a "solution seeking a problem."

"We didn't believe that people who were legitimately resorting to self-defense were getting jammed up in the system," she said. "It was an unnecessary expansion of the law, we opposed it and we stand by that."

Torsten Ove: or 412-263-1510.


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