ST. LOUIS — An increasing number of intruders in St. Louis are being gunned down by homeowners, due in part to a 2007 self-defense law known as the castle doctrine. But now, authorities are changing how they review apparent justifiable homicide cases.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that there were seven fatal shootings involving the castle doctrine in the city in 2011, up from two the previous year. In the past, police detectives and homicide unit supervisors who thought a killing was justified would contact the circuit attorney's office to make sure prosecutors agreed.
"If the victim was able to articulate that they thought their lives were in jeopardy, along with being supported by physical evidence and/or witness statements, it was deemed justifiable," said Capt. Michael Sack, head of the homicide unit.
Now, every case will be scrutinized in a more formal review by the St. Louis circuit attorney's office.
"It seems to make sense to ask someone else to review our investigation and our work and see if they come to the same conclusions as we do, especially when you're talking about something as serious as taking someone's life," Sack said.
William Whitfield, a 66-year-old retired Navy petty officer, came home one January morning in 2010 to find that burglars had ransacked his small brick bungalow. They took his tools, computer, flat-screen TV. But he figured they'd be back because they left bags stuffed with more of his belongings near a basement stairwell.
Whitfield called police but armed himself with a 9 mm pistol and slept in a chair in the front room. When three people broke in about 3 a.m., he shot and killed one of them.
No charges were filed.
"I was worried for my safety," Whitfield said. "I just figured if somebody breaks in, you have a right to defend yourself."
Until passage of the castle doctrine, Missouri law didn't necessarily concur.
Under the old law, homeowners confronted by intruders had a duty to escape their homes if they could do so safely. Deadly force was justified only if needed for protection from serious injury or death. The castle doctrine allows more leeway in using deadly force for those who encounter an intruder in their homes or vehicle or on their property.
Kevin Jamison, a Gladstone attorney who lobbied for the castle doctrine bill as a member of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, said Missourians can repel intruders on the theory that anyone breaking into an occupied home has evil intentions toward the residents.
About 30 states have some form of a castle doctrine, according to the National Rifle Association.
Critics worry that castle doctrine laws encourage vigilantism or can be used as cover for someone who wanted to commit premeditated murder.
"We call them 'shoot-first laws,'" said Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "Shoot first, ask questions later."
It's not clear how many times the castle doctrine has been used as a defense in Missouri. There have been cases where charges against the shooters were considered.
In 2008, a Kirksville woman fatally shot a man who violated a restraining order and crawled through her window. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster decided that no crime was committed.
Earlier this year in St. Louis, a man broke into his ex-girlfriend's home and allegedly tried to attack her. Another man who was also in the home came to the woman's aid and pointed a gun at the intruder, but didn't shoot, instead handing the gun to the woman.
The woman pointed it at the intruder as he stood with his back to a wall, according to police. The woman's friend helped her steady the gun and point it.
"I told you if you came back, I was gonna kill you," she said before fatally shooting him, according to police reports.
St. Louis police sought second-degree murder charges against the woman and the man. But prosecutors declined to file them, citing the castle doctrine.