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District attorney educates crowd on ‘stand your ground’ laws

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Assistant District Attorney Walt Brown discusses recent cases that have come before the Mississippi Supreme Court concerning the Castle Law and “stand your ground”  laws.
Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Assistant District Attorney Walt Brown discusses recent cases that have come before the Mississippi Supreme Court concerning the Castle Law and “stand your ground” laws.

NATCHEZ — Despite national cases that have brought attention to so-called “stand your ground” laws, District Attorney Ronnie Harper said Mississippians who are honestly defending themselves against harm have no fear of legal repercussions.

But while you have a right to defend yourself, that doesn’t mean anything goes, he said.

“A person has to be in a reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury or death in order to defend themselves in such a way that they seriously injure or kill someone,” he said. “If someone is going to hit you with their fist, you can’t pull a gun and shoot them.”

Harper’s comments were made Friday before a group of students and staff at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. Co-Lin instructor Ray Bradford said discussion of stand your ground laws came up during his small self-defense class, and so he asked Harper to address the questions for the entire student body.

Stand-your-ground laws have been a matter of intense discussion in national discourse following the high-profile trial of George Zimmermann last summer for the 2012 Florida shooting death of an unarmed teenager during an altercation.

More recently, the laws have become a matter of discussion after the shooting death of Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old who was fatally shot in the face Nov. 2, when 54-year-old Theodore Wafer reportedly thought she was breaking into his home in Dearborn Heights, Mich.

McBride had apparently crashed her car nearby and was seeking help. Wafer has been charged with second-degree murder, with a prosecutor saying he did not act in lawful self-defense.

Harper said Mississippians have always had a right to self-defense, but the so-called Castle Law — which was adopted in 2006 — places an assumption of innocence on anyone who claims self-defense.

“The burden now shifts to the prosecution and the state to prove it wasn’t a person acting in reasonable fear of injury or death,” Harper said.

“Our fear is that if someone says, ‘Hey, come over to my vehicle,’ and the other guy walks up to the vehicle and the person in the vehicle shoots him and says ‘I was afraid he was going to hurt me,’ I have got to prove now he was not in reasonable fear.”

Assistant District Attorney Walt Brown said residents have the right to defend themselves during a robbery — even a strong-arm robbery — but they are not allowed to pursue a robber across town and then kill them.

“Once I leave the area, there is not imminent fear, there is no imminent harm,” he said.

Harper said he knew of one case in which a homeowner shot a burglar in the back with a rifle at 100 yards.

“I don’t think you can reasonably claim self-defense at that point,” he said.

“The problem I have with most homicides is I only have one witness, and he is on the other side. Most people don’t commit these crimes in front of other people or people who want to help with law enforcement.”

The bottom line, Harper said, is Mississippians have the right to defend themselves.

“If you think someone is going to kill you, you have that right to defend yourself, but it is a matter of equality — you can’t shoot them with a Howitzer if they come at you with a pen knife.”