Public Safety

Two fatal shootings test Iowa's "stand your ground" law

Different judges reach different conclusions on applying the new law

Sixth District Court Judge Paul Miller speaks Oct. 27, 2017, during a hearing for Lamar Wilson at the Johnson County Courthouse. Because Iowa's stand your ground law is not clear on how to determine immunity, “we're making it up as we go along,” the judge said recently. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Sixth District Court Judge Paul Miller speaks Oct. 27, 2017, during a hearing for Lamar Wilson at the Johnson County Courthouse. Because Iowa's stand your ground law is not clear on how to determine immunity, “we're making it up as we go along,” the judge said recently. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Two early tests of Iowa’s new “stand your ground” deadly force law have exposed the measures’s ambiguities, leading different judges to apply it differently and raising concerns it could be invoked to shield dubious behavior.

“We’re making it up as we go along,” said 6th Judicial District Judge Paul Miller recently in overseeing the ongoing case of a fatal shooting last year on Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall and who could decide this week whether the shooter will go to prison or go free.

Iowa is one of at least 24 states with stand-your-ground laws that allow people to use reasonable force — including deadly force — against another to defend themselves and others against perceived threats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Iowa’s law, adopted by the Legislature in 2017 as part of a sweeping expansion of gun rights, does not require that a person be correct in his or her estimation of the danger, or about how much force is necessary to counter it “as long as there is a reasonable basis for the belief … and the person acts reasonably in response to that belief.”

Iowa’s measure also says a law-abiding person relying on the statute is “immune from criminal or civil liability” for using force against an aggressor — a clause that’s led to confusion in the early cases.

TWO CASES, TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHES

Two fatal shootings — in Johnson County and Montgomery County, in southwestern Iowa — underscore the uncertainty surrounding the state’s stand-your-ground law.

In the Johnson County case, Miller is being asked to determine if Lamar Wilson, 24, of Iowa City, should be granted immunity from serving prison time for fatally shooting one man and injuring two others Aug. 27 on Iowa City’s Ped Mall.

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Wilson claims the shootings were justified because he was defending himself and others.

Like Iowa’s law, others around the nation also have immunity provisions intended to shield self-defenders from prosecution. But Miller, in one of his rulings, said Iowa’s law differs from others in its language — it lacks a procedure to determine immunity.

After many hearings in Wilson’s case, Miller decided to wait to rule on the immunity issue until after Wilson was tried on criminal charges.

“The law provides that the individual using reasonable force is granted immunity from criminal liability for damages to the initial aggressor. This immunity is not an affirmative defense, but an immunity from prosecution.”

- 4th Judicial District Judge James S. Heckerman

 

 

A jury in February found Wilson guilty of voluntary manslaughter and other charges.

Two witnesses testified that Wilson fired a gun five times on the Ped Mall, striking Kaleek Jones, 22, in the back and neck as he turned to walk away, and D’Andre Hicks and his cousin, Xavier Hicks, as they were facing Wilson.

Jones and the Hickses were unarmed but others had guns and attacked Wilson and his group, testimony showed.

Wilson and his friends clashed with Jones and his friends over a Facebook post, according to court testimony.

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Wilson’s attorney argued Wilson, who had a permit to carry a gun, feared for his life and was forced to defend himself and others.

Wilson also faces a charge of gang participation, which was severed from the other charges but also stems from the Ped Mall shooting.

He faces up to 24 years in prison if Miller doesn’t grant his claim of immunity. The judge is expected to issue a ruling on that later this week.

On the other side of the sate, in Montgomery County, a judge approached the immunity question differently.

There, 4th Judicial District Judge James S. Heckerman looked specifically to Florida’s stand-your-ground law for guidance.

On Feb. 12, Heckerman granted immunity to Kevin Staley, 39, of Red Oak, who had been charged with voluntary manslaughter. Staley fatally shot one of two men who jumped him in an alley last October.

In his ruling, Heckerman didn’t seem to question the law’s language.

“The law provides that the individual using reasonable force is granted immunity from criminal liability for damages to the initial aggressor,” he wrote. “This immunity is not an affirmative defense, but an immunity from prosecution.”

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Heckerman provided no further reasoning, other than noting in his ruling that the Florida law has been “widely used in other jurisdictions for years.”

Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson said the case had “undisputed facts that I couldn’t fight. You can’t change facts. I didn’t know a thing about this law. We don’t deal with these much. We’re just a small county.”

Swanson said the judge concluded Staley was “ambushed in a dark alley by two people, wearing hoodies and bandannas (covering their faces), was enough to make him fearful, and he didn’t have to retreat.”

"I want the legislators to step up and clarify this, so the judges aren't winging it. This involves safety on our streets and proper safety of guns. Is this what they intended – drug dealers in alleys and gang members shooting at each other on the Ped Mall could claim immunity in fatal shootings?”

- First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks

 

 

Swanson said he agrees that the procedural aspect of determining immunity is missing from the law, but said that’s “above my pay grade and for the legislators to decide.” He said he never questioned the judge’s ruling.

A witness initially told police he met Staley in the alley that night to conduct a drug deal. Later, he said he lured Staley there so the others could attack him.

Police said they found no drugs at the scene and Staley had a permit to carry the gun he used in the shooting.

Even though her client received a favorable resolution, DeShawne Bird-Sell with the Sell Law Firm in Glenwood wants more clarity.

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“I feel they could have made a better law,” Bird-Sell said. “There’s no procedural guidelines to follow. Judges will rule in a different manner. There needs to be some clarity of the actual intent of the statue.”

Bird-Sell said that, based on other states’ stand-your-ground case law, it was appropriate for a judge to determine her client’s immunity before trial. But it would help to provide those guidelines to avoid confusion, she said.

‘IS THIS WHAT THEY INTENDED?’

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said the Montgomery County ruling doesn’t necessarily provide any guidance for future cases.

In fact, he is concerned about the “court’s interpretation of the language of the law.”

“The Iowa law doesn’t make it clear that someone is immune from criminal prosecution — only from ‘criminal or civil liability for all damages incurred by the aggressor,’” he said.

“I want the legislators to step up and clarify this, so the judges aren’t winging it,” Maybanks said. “This involves safety on our streets and proper safety of guns.”

Maybanks said he has concerns if a judge decides the immunity issue before a trial because it removes the public — the jury — as a fact finder.

“Is this what they intended — drug dealers in alleys and gang members shooting at each other on the Ped Mall could claim immunity in fatal shootings?” he asked.

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NO CHANGES TO THE LAW IN THE WORKS

Other states with a stand-your-ground provision including Kansas, Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma specifically state a person who is justified in using deadly force is “immune from criminal prosecution.”

State Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, who led passage of the bill last year, told The Gazette last week it was not the intent of the measure “to leave the interpretation of the law up to the judges.”

The intent of the law, he said, was that a person would be absolved of “prosecution at the onset … not have to make them go through a trial if justified.”

Windschitl said there is no plan currently to revise or alter the law.

But if more issues or “confusion” continue to arise in other cases, he said he has “no qualms about looking at legislation.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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