The line between self-defense and criminal aggression always has been thick and blurred.
The shooting death of a teenager in Florida last month has prompted questions about the wisdom of "stand-your-ground" laws, which seek to clarify and broaden the circumstances in which a person can respond with deadly force to an attack or a threat. Nebraska and Iowa haven't placed stand-your-ground clauses into their self-defense legislation, but efforts have been made to expand those laws.
Stronger self-defense legislation has gained momentum nationwide in recent years, in part because gun-rights proponents say a person shouldn't have to retreat or fear prosecution when protecting himself, his family or his home. Fleeing a violent individual can cost a person his life, they say.
Some prosecutors and police officers worry, however, that those laws may encourage people to cross the gray line and engage in reckless, aggressive, even criminal behavior.
Matt Wilber, county attorney for Pottawattamie County, said Iowa doesn't need to broaden its law.
"Iowa has recognized self-defense since before we were a state," Wilber said late last week. " 'Stand your ground' really goes beyond that." Wilber said such laws represent a "bring it on" mentality in which those confronted may feel emboldened to kill or maim.
None of those interviewed suggested they know exactly what happened in the Florida incident, in which Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed late last month by off-duty neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who said he felt threatened.
The teen reportedly had left the house where his father's fiancee lives in a muti-ethnic gated community to purchase candy and an iced tea at a convenience store. He was walking back to that house when Zimmerman saw him.
Zimmerman, 28, hasn't been charged. The incident has prompted a federal civil rights investigation and the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Florida's self-defense law was amended last decade to state that a person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground to meet force with force" if attacked.
David Baker, a deputy police chief in Omaha who soon will become interim chief, has testified against broader self-defense legislation in Nebraska. Baker said it's well-meaning, but people could hide behind it after committing a criminal act.
"It essentially lowers the threshold to take a human life," Baker said.
Wilber and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine both said that based on their limited knowledge of the Florida incident, they probably could prosecute Zimmerman with the backing of their respective state laws, which don't include stand-your-ground terminology.
Kleine said Nebraska's law generally says a person should try to get away and shouldn't use deadly force unless absolutely necessary.
"But of course that's a judgment call," Kleine said.
Jeff Burkett, president of the Iowa Firearms Coalition, said he doesn't know what happened in Florida, but the state's stand-your-ground law might not even be applicable to this situation. Opponents of gun rights might simply seize on the case as an opportunity to criticize the law and the National Rifle Association, which supports and lobbies for those laws, Burkett said.
"The law is not intended to enable people to commit crimes," Burkett said. Stand-your-ground laws protect people from being wrongly prosecuted when they simply defended themselves, he said.
Burkett cited a recent case in the Des Moines area in which a man had to spend close to four months in jail after a roadway conflict late last year. Following a collision, Jay Rodney Lewis called 911 when two men in the other car battered his car windows with their fists.
Lewis pulled a gun and told them to leave him alone. He said one of them nevertheless ran at him, and Lewis shot the man, who was wounded but not killed. The Des Moines Register reported that Lewis was evicted, lost many of his belongings and temporarily lost his job while he awaited trial. A jury found Lewis not guilty.
Burkett said that if Iowa had the stand-your-ground law, Lewis might not have been prosecuted and wouldn't have had to endure such misery.
The cases in which self-defense comes into play are varied. Kleine prosecuted a convenience store worker 16 years ago who shot and killed a shoplifting teenager. The man followed the boy and an accomplice outside the store and killed the 15-year-old by firing a bullet into his back.
Kleine declined two years ago to charge a man who was shopping at Walgreens when an 18-year-old pointed a sawed-off shotgun at customers. The man shot the assailant four times, killing him.
In Council Bluffs last year, a man shot and killed a 41-year-old man who had punched him outside a bar. Citing the likelihood that self-defense could be legitimately claimed, Wilber dropped charges and submitted the matter to a grand jury. The grand jury chose not to file charges.
Stand-your-ground legislation increasingly has gained acceptance by legislatures around the nation. Chris Rager, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said more than 25 states have "no retreat" provisions in their law books.
Those are only self-defense provisions, Rager said through an email message, and a person still must act "reasonably" and use "reasonable force" in a confrontation.
Another form of self-defense legislation is the "castle" law, which refers to the saying that a home is your castle. Nebraska and Iowa self-defense laws refer to the right to defend one's home, although not as clearly as some would like. Iowa's law, for instance, says a person may use deadly force if the alternative "requires one to abandon or retreat from one's dwelling or place of business ..."
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha proposed this year to add castle language to Nebraska law. His proposal stated that deadly force should be allowed against a person who forcibly enters another's residence or occupied vehicle.
That language didn't make it out of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said state law already gives people the right to protect themselves in their homes, with deadly force, if necessary.
As for stand-your-ground legislation, he said, the Legislature has turned down several proposals. Senators "have not adopted this Florida thing," he said. "It's dangerous stuff."
Although Lautenbaugh's initial proposal failed to get out of the Judiciary Committee, a compromise pending before the Legislature would protect from civil claims those who had won self-defense cases. The protection would be available specifically in civil suits alleging assault and battery or intentional wrongful death.
Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln, a supporter of Lautenbaugh's bill, said the protection against civil litigation doesn't go far enough. Fulton cited a case in Omaha last week in which a 64-year-old man fired at the floor to stop a man who had broken down his front door at 3:45 a.m.
The perpetrator theoretically could claim he was suffering anxiety related to the incident and sue the man for false imprisonment, Fulton said. "That's crazy," he said. Nevertheless, Fulton said, the civil protection is a compromise, and he'll accept that.
As for the broader castle legislation, Fulton said a person should be allowed to defend his property. But legislators must be careful about the wording, he said. They can't draft a law so vague that it protects someone who shoots a person innocently attempting to sell something at the doorstep, he said.
Iowa State Rep. Matt Windschitl of Missouri Valley has tried futilely for several years to pass stand-your-ground legislation. His legislation made it through the House this year, but it appears the proposal will get bogged down in the Iowa Senate.
Windschitl's plan says a person "has no duty to retreat from any place where the person is lawfully present before using force." It also says a person can be wrong in his calculation of danger or force "as long as there is reasonable basis for the belief of the person and the person acts reasonably in the response to that belief."
The proposal also states that a person using reasonable force should be immune from criminal prosecution and civil suits. That person should receive attorney fees, court costs and other expenses incurred defending himself against a civil suit if the court finds he is immune from prosecution.
Windschitl said his proposal doesn't allow unreasonable actions to go unpunished. But Iowans deserve the right to protect themselves, he said.
"If an Iowan wants to stand their ground ... this provides an opportunity for them to do that," he said.
But County Attorney Wilber said the proposal is unnecessary. "We subscribe to the castle doctrine already," he said. "We have a robust self-defense law right now."
World-Herald researcher Jeanne Hauser contributed to this story.
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