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Questions Remain As 'Stand Your Ground' Case Proceeds In Eastern Iowa

Douglas Palmer/Flickr

The question of how to apply Iowa’s 'Stand Your Ground' law is once again before a judge, this time in Iowa's 6th Judicial District. The case involving a shooting outside of a Cedar Rapids bar could be another opportunity for a judge to weigh in on the 2017 measure.

Michael Hodges of Cedar Rapids is facing charges of attempted murder, willful injury and intimidation with a dangerous weapon in the shooting of Zevon Johnson. In the early hours of January 28, 2018, the men had an altercation outside of Pub 217 in Cedar Rapids that lead to both men shooting at each other.

In a pre-trial evidentiary hearing before 6th District Judge Patrick Grady in Linn County Wednesday, Hodges' legal team argued he should be immune from prosecution because he had a reasonable fear of a deadly threat. Hodges alleged that Johnson pulled his weapon first and spoke to Hodges in what he characterized as a threatening manner. Hodges alleged Johnson then shot at him, and that Hodges returned fire, hitting him in the chest.

"He complied with every provision of that law. The state had their opportunity to try to prove otherwise and they chose not to." - Tyler Johnston, attorney for Michael Hodges

Hodges' attorney Tyler Johnston cited statute 704.13 in his defense, which grants immunity from "criminal or civil liability for all damages" for those who are "justified in using reasonable force against an aggressor in defense of oneself".

“I think it was obvious to anybody in there that he was telling the truth. And that the way the law is written now, that he complied with every provision of that law," Johnson said after the hearing. "The state had their opportunity to try to prove otherwise, and they chose not to.”

Arguing on behalf of the state of Iowa, Linn County Assistant Attorney Rena Schulte said Hodges shouldn't be granted immunity, citing 704.2a. This statute finds a person can reasonably believe they need to use deadly force if someone is unlawfully entering the person's home, place of business or vehicle.

"This happened outside of a bar. This wasn't in someone's residence," Schulte said.

After the hearing, Schulte reiterated her argument that the reasonable response to seeing Johnson pull out a gun pulled would have been for Hodges to back off, not pull his own weapon.

“At least it’s my belief that the Legislature didn’t intend for someone to be able to aggress towards another person, shoot that person, and then claim self-defense,” Schulte said.

"It's not normal for us to have these situations where we don't really know what the procedure is and what exactly the law means." - Rena Schulte, attorney for the state of Iowa

This is the latest test case of Iowa's 'Stand Your Ground' law and another chance for a judge to provide some guidance on its application. Many in the legal community have criticized the law for its lack of clarity on procedural issues. A judge in a previous case labeled the law “void for vagueness”. Lawyers on both sides of the Iowa vs. Hodges case said many questions remain.

"There's very little indication from the Legislature how we're supposed to do this," Johnston said. "As to who had the burden of proof in this hearing, what the rules of evidence were going to be...all of those things we had to talk about," he said.

Schulte said she's looking for more guidance from Judge Grady on how the law should be applied.

"It's just very confusing," she said. " It's not normal for us to have these situations where we don't really know what the procedure is and what exactly the law means."

Hodges' trial date is currently set for July 9th. He and his legal team hope Judge Grady will grant him immunity, allowing him to sidestep that trial.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter