Missouri man's trial uses Castle Doctrine
STEELVILLE, Mo. — James Crocker had grown weary of the partying canoeists and rafters who encroached on his neatly kept property along Missouri's Meramec River. When he caught a man about to relieve himself on a gravel bar by his yard last month, a nasty confrontation ensued that ended with one person dead and Crocker accused of killing him.
The case against Crocker is the latest to put a spotlight on “castle doctrine” laws, which allow the use of deadly force to protect property. Missouri is among at least 30 states that have enacted the statutes, which supporters say protect gun rights but others insist promote vigilantism.
Crocker's attorney, Michael Bert of St. Louis, said that Crocker was defending himself and his property.
“Here's a man in fear for his life and fearful he might suffer bodily injury,” Bert said.
Prosecutors see it differently. Witnesses who testified at a hearing this month said Crocker was angry and raging, shooting into the crowd of people, narrowly missing two others before killing 48-year-old Paul Dart Jr. of Robertsville, Mo. Crocker has been charged with second-degree murder.
Even some supporters of the doctrine say the violence seemed avoidable.
“The smart thing is to back away, and nobody seemed to be willing to do that,” said Kevin Jamison, an attorney who lobbied for Missouri's castle doctrine bill as a member of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance.
Crocker, a 59-year-old plastics plant worker with long hair and a thick goatee, lives in a small white frame home on a shaded gravel road about eight miles west of Steelville, the self-proclaimed floating capital of the world.
Drinking is sometimes part of the outings, resulting in bawdy behavior that doesn't sit well with owners of land that touches the river. Many have complained for years about loud parties, trash left behind and crude behavior.
Herb Smelser, 77, who lives three houses down from Crocker, said it isn't uncommon to find people using his yard as a restroom. The problem was so bad, he said, that he let his grass grow high to discourage trespassers.
Crocker, though, kept his yard trim and tidy — “like a park,” Smelser said. To keep out the unwanted, Crocker posted “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs along the hill that slopes down to a gravel area along the meandering river.
Crawford County detective Zachary Driskill said he asked Crocker if he could have called police.
“I guess I could have, but it's my property and I was going to protect it,” Crocker responded, according to case documents.