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Castle Doctrine designed to reinforce right to protect yourself and your family

Wednesday, July 4, 2007 | 2:12 p.m. CDT; updated 10:07 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

In 2001, a Callaway County man, William Jones, shot and killed 18-year-old Jonathan Gramling during what police later said was a case of self-defense during a robbery attempt.

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Gramling’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Jones in 2002, despite the fact he was never indicted for the killing. Reports at the time said Jones had chased Gramling and two accomplices from the house with a shotgun before firing his weapon. Gramling’s body was found about 32 feet from Jones’ house.

The Gramlings’ suit was dismissed in 2004. When reached by phone, Jones declined to comment.

Under a bill signed into law by Gov. Matt Blunt on Tuesday, the families of people killed during the act of invading a home would have no legal recourse. And a person who defended his or her home from intruders would have no reason to fear legal reprisal.

If the police investigation finds that there was no foul play and that the incident was truly self-defense, law enforcement communicates the findings to the prosecutor, and the homeowner doesn’t have to appear in court. State Rep. Marilyn Ruestman, R-Joplin, calls this “absolute defense for self-defense.” Ruestman co-sponsored the bill, which was nicknamed the “Castle Doctrine.”

Absolute defense protects homeowners from civil lawsuits. For instance, in a case like Jones’, the two-year legal battle would not create a financial hit. And if a family member of the person who is wounded files a lawsuit, the Castle Doctrine protects the defendant from legal action and will force the plaintiff to pay all legal expenses.

“The way the law is interpreted, someone trying to hijack your car or breaking into your house, you can use lethal force to protect yourself,” said State Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia. “And there have been some cases where even though that’s true, the heirs, or someone else, whoever is attached to the person who is killed, sues. The Castle Doctrine would prevent civil cases, unless there was grounds from a criminal standpoint.”

The Castle Doctrine is named for a concept believed to date back at least to medieval times, when people had the legal right to defend their castles from intruders. It received overwhelming support among Missouri legislators, with the House passing it 151-6 and the Senate 29-3.

The bill will take effect Aug. 28, but those involved in the criminal justice system are beginning to anticipate the necessary adjustments.

“The circumstances in which you are allowed to use deadly force (are) more liberal now than what it was before,” said Stan Clay, a Columbia criminal defense attorney. “There were certain statutory grounds that you had to raise, and now it’s much broader when you can use deadly force.”

Previous “duty-to-retreat” laws bound citizens to avoid conflict even in dangerous situations, and then to do everything in their power to retreat instead of using force. When people resorted to the use of force, they had to prove that they had first tried to retreat. The Castle Doctrine eliminates that requirement.

“The Castle Doctrine says you don’t have to ask: ‘By the way, are you here to hurt me or my family?’” Robb said. “You can just take defensive measures on your own.”

State Rep. Dennis Wood, R-Kimberling City, was another co-sponsor. He said the law will reduce court loads and allow people to protect themselves from wrongdoers. He doesn’t believe it will cause a spike in home shootings.

“The bill doesn’t say anything about guns,” Wood said. “It says the right to protect yourself.”

Versions of the Castle Doctrine have been passed in 23 other states, including Florida. The law in Florida extends to any place a person has a right to be; Missouri’s does not.

“You can’t shoot them in the backyard, you can’t shoot them at the curb. There’s a lot of misconceptions,” Robb said about the Missouri law. “If you see someone stealing your car, you can’t stand in the door and shoot them, because you’re not in imminent danger. It has to do with individuals, not property. That’s the big distinction.”

Sgt. John White of the Columbia Police Department’s Community Service Unit said the department will follow the same investigative procedures as before and let the courts worry about whether the Castle Doctrine applies.

“I think the interesting thing is that Missourians have always had the right to protect themselves,” White said. “If they felt like they were in imminent danger, you could always protect yourself. So I’m not quite sure what the change in the law is going to accomplish, because we already had that right.”

Ruestman, however, said the legislation clarifies that right.

“I think it’s very clear,” Ruestman said. “More clear than legislation before this.”

Blunt, who signed the bill in Joplin, has long been an advocate of the bill. He and members of the National Rifle Association did a statewide tour promoting it.

“It ensures law-abiding Missourians will not be punished when they use force to defend themselves and their family from attacks in their own home or vehicle,” Blunt said in a written statement.

Some of the information in this story was contributed by The Associated Press.


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