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Recently enacted laws that give citizens more leeway in using deadly force against attackers are already being invoked as a defense in several criminal cases across the country. Last October, Florida became the first state to pass the so-called “shoot first” or “stand your ground” law, which allows a person to use deadly force in self-defense, in their home or in a public place, without having to retreat. In the last several months, 12 states have followed suit with different versions of the law-partly the result of a legislative campaign by the powerful National Rifle Association. In Florida, a tow-truck operator who allegedly shot and killed an unarmed man who drove his car from the lot without paying is using the state’s new stand-your-ground law to justify his actions. Florida v. Donald Montanez, No. 06-CF-2353 (Hillsborough Co., Fla., Cir. Ct.). At least two other Florida cases are also using the law, including a man who shot another man during a fight and a gang shooting that resulted in two deaths. In a Colorado murder case, the jury, citing the state’s “Make My Day” law, ruled that a homeowner was justified in fatally shooting a man who was parked in a car outside his home because he feared that the man, who had previously assaulted him, would come into his house and hurt him again. People v. Gary Hill, No. 04CR4427 (El Paso Co., Colo., Dist. Ct.). The national ‘mood’ Attorneys say these cases highlight a new self-defense trend in which people who are physically threatened by someone are no longer required to retreat-even if they have that option-before using deadly force. They can also use fear alone to justify their actions and, in some cases, be offered immunity from prosecution. “It’s just kind of the mood of the country. A lot of people believe that, ‘Hey, if someone threatens me with deadly force, they’re acting wrongfully, why should I have to change my behavior and run from them?’ ” said Tom Hagel, a part-time judge and law professor at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio. Hagel opposes shoot-first laws; he feels that such laws can lead to deadly mistakes. “Common law has always said we always value human life more than your sense of manhood,” said Hagel. He believes that “If you have a chance to retreat, you have to.” Not so, argued David Lehman, general counsel for the National Rifle Association’s political division, which has been the driving force behind the campaign to loosen self-defense laws. The NRA is pushing states to adopt “Castle Doctrine” laws-which authorize the use of deadly force in self defense beyond a house. The Castle Doctrine is derived from old English Common Law, which holds that individuals who are attacked in a place where they have a legal right to be should have the option to stand their ground and defend themselves without fear of prosecution. Lehman said that the NRA launched its legislative campaign last year after discovering cases in Washington, New York and Illinois where citizens were “unfairly” being prosecuted for not retreating from criminal attacks. The states that have passed shoot-first or Castle Doctrine laws are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota. Michigan and Ohio are considering similar measures. The laws vary from state to state. Some allow use of deadly force anywhere, while others limit it to homes and vehicles. Shoot-first laws have drawn a mixed reaction from the legal community. Defense attorneys see them as a useful tool for gaining acquittals or avoiding criminal charges altogether. But prosecutors are more skeptical about the statutes, fearing that they could trigger vigilantism or strip them of their rights to review deadly force cases. They note that some states like Alabama and Florida offer immunity to people who use deadly force legitimately. “What is of some concern to America’s prosecutors is that some states are saying right on top that you have immunity [from prosecution] and that’s a bit broad,” said Paul Logli, a state’s attorney in Winnebago County, Ill., and president of the National District Attorneys Association. “I have a problem with ‘shoot first, ask questions later,’ ” Logli said. “ That’s going to be a disservice that might lead people to make bad decisions. That’s why prosecutors reserve the right to review any of these cases to determine that that person’s actions in using deadly force were reasonable.” But Robert Lewis, an assistant state attorney in Pinellas and Pasco counties in Florida, said his state’s shoot-first law hasn’t caused any problems so far. “We haven’t had an outbreak of shootings,” Lewis said. “I just don’t see anything wrong with [the new law]. I haven’t seen anything that bothers me about it.” Donald A. Bosch, who is on the board of directors for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, anticipates that shoot-first cases will be popular among juries, particularly ones in conservative jurisdictions where murder defendants often raise what he calls the “SOBNIK defense.” “That stands for ‘SOB needed killing,’ ” said Bosch of the Bosch Law Firm in Knoxville, Tenn. “ There are four defenses: I didn’t do it. I didn’t mean to do it. I’m crazy. Or he needed killing-that latter case often has jury appeal. Now would these ‘Make my day’ laws give credence to that theory? It’s making it law. And that’s what’s going to be interesting.” A Colorado acquittal David Webster, senior deputy district attorney in El Paso County, Colo., knows first hand how shoot-first laws appeal to juries. He prosecuted the case against Gary Lee Hill, a homeowner who on Dec. 14, 2005, was acquitted of first-degree murder charges for shooting and killing an unarmed person who was sitting in a car in front of his house. According to Webster, Lee had been assaulted inside his home by a group of older teens earlier in the night and feared the person in the car in front of his house was going to harm him . He said that even though the victim was shot as he was driving away, the jury felt Hill’s fear and justified his actions. “I can understand where the jury was coming from,” Webster said. “You start thinking, ‘Well, what if someone were in my house and started beating the crap out of me?’ I’d have a hard time with that.” In light of the verdict, Webster believes the state needs to revise its shoot-first law to determine exactly where an intruder must be to justify deadly force.

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