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Florida shooting shines spotlight on Pennsylvania's law

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By Jill King Greenwood
Saturday, March 24, 2012
 

Pennsylvania lawmakers and activists studied Florida's law governing citizens' right to use deadly force before crafting last year's expansion to this state's "Castle Doctrine" statute.

The fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager there by a neighborhood watch captain who claimed self-defense has focused intense national debate on such laws as critics on both sides of the gun control debate call for charges against the shooter.

"What that man is accused of doing, by following that kid, confronting him and then shooting him, all because he thought he was suspicious -- that isn't what the Castle Doctrine was intended for," said Kim Stolfer of McDonald, chair of Firearm Owners Against Crime.

Stolfer, a gun-rights activist who helped legislators craft Pennsylvania's law, does not think authorities should allow George Zimmerman of Sanford, Fla., to invoke the law in defense of shooting Trayvon Martin, 17.

"These Castle Doctrine laws are a ticking time bomb, and it's only a matter of time before Pennsylvania has a Trayvon Martin case," said Max Nacheman, director of the gun violence prevention group CeaseFirePA. "These laws should be referred to as 'Shoot first, ask questions later.' "

Pennsylvania's law, which Gov. Tom Corbett signed in June, expanded the right to use deadly force without retreat outside a person's home to his or her car, yard or any other location where he or she is legally allowed to be. Somerset County prosecutors cited the law in December when they decided not to charge a man who fatally shot his wife's lover outside his home with a compound bow.

Prosecutors initially opposed expanding the law in 2009, according to Rich Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association in Harrisburg. They successfully lobbied to add language to the law, including a provision that the person doing the shooting had to be in legal possession of the gun and that a weapon must clearly be displayed for someone to believe his or her life is in imminent danger. Those provisions are not in the Florida law.

Pennsylvania's law also encourages, but does not require, the shooter to retreat first.

Thirty states have Castle Doctrine laws. Of those, Florida is among more than 20 with "Stand Your Ground" laws, which give a person broader latitude when deciding whether to react with deadly force and place the burden of proof on prosecutors, said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. Florida in 2005 was the first state to explicitly expand a person's right to use deadly force.

Harris thinks lawmakers should review or rescind the laws. "This will not end up as an isolated case," he said.

Demonstrators held angry protests across Florida this week over the Feb. 26 killing, and outrage is spreading nationally. Martin, who was black, was shot in Sanford, a suburb of Orlando, while walking back to his father's house after buying a package of Skittles candy and a bottle of iced tea at a convenience store.

Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, was patrolling the community when he called 911 and reported a man acting suspiciously, police said. Zimmerman followed Martin, and a confrontation ensued, during which Zimmerman shot the teenager once. Agencies including the Department of Justice are reviewing the incident. President Obama has urged a close investigation of the case.

The Carnegie Mellon University Black Graduate Student Organization will demonstrate at 12:30 p.m. Monday on the campus along Forbes Avenue.

"The law was intended to protect you if your life is in danger, so that you don't turn around and get sued by the family of the person who was trying to kill you," Stolfer said. "Mr. Zimmerman needs to be arrested, and this law doesn't deserve to be sacrificed for his actions."

Although Pennsylvania's law is not as broad as in other states, it has come up in a few cases.

Somerset County prosecutors cited it in not prosecuting Carl Wooley Jr. for fatally shooting Tony Bittinger with a compound bow. At the time, District Attorney Jerry Spangler said that Bittinger came to Wooley's house armed with a bat and that the law allowed Wooley to respond with deadly force.

In Westmoreland County, lawyers cited the expanded Castle Doctrine as prosecutors investigated a road rage shooting incident in Ligonier Township in October. Prosecutors ultimately withdrew charges against Charles Gallow of Ligonier but cited the victim's refusal to testify as the reason.

District attorneys in Butler, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties did not return phone messages and emails seeking comment. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said there have been no cases in the county invoking the Castle Doctrine as a defense since its expansion.

Additional Information:

Comparing laws

Differences between Pennsylvania's expanded 'Castle Doctrine' statute and the law in Florida:

In Florida, the law does not encourage someone to try to retreat from an attacker in a public space before using lethal force. Pennsylvania's law says that if you are not in your home, car or on your property, you should make every effort to retreat.

Pennsylvania's law cannot be used as a defense if the person using lethal force does not legally own the gun. It says a weapon must be clearly displayed and used in a threatening manner for someone to consider it grounds for reacting with lethal force. Florida's law has no such provisions.

Florida's law allows the use of lethal force in all public spaces, including parking lots, sidewalks and businesses. Pennsylvania's law mainly deals with a person's private property.

Additional Information:

Shooting 'justified'

NORRISTOWN -- Prosecutors have ruled a shooting that left one man dead in the driveway of a suburban Philadelphia home and sent another to the hospital was justified under the state's expanded 'Castle Doctrine' of self-defense.

The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office said on Friday that a review determined 42-year-old Angel Gonzalez acted in self-defense when he shot and killed 19-year-old Zachary Levin and wounded Zachary's stepfather Joshua Levin on Dec. 17 in Upper Fredrick Township.

Prosecutors said Gonzalez was living at the time with Joshua Levin's estranged wife when both Levins showed up at Gonzalez's home with baseball bats and threatened to kill him.

Investigators said Gonzalez opened fire when Zachary Levin struck him in the head with a bat. He fired a second time when Joshua Levin came at him.

• Associated Press

 

 
 


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