Missouri has a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, but it may not help Andrew Lester in Ralph Yarl case
There are no statistics to show how often the accused have invoked Stand Your Ground as a defense. One veteran Kansas City defense attorney says, in the shooting of Ralph Yarl, the facts don’t meet the case.
On a hot July day in 2013, a float trip on the Meramec River southwest of St. Louis turned deadly during an argument about a sandbar. Less than a year later, a jury found James Crocker guilty in the shooting death of a man Crocker said was trespassing on his private property.
This was before the Missouri Stand Your Ground law went into effect in 2016. And yet, Crocker invoked the right to defend his property in his ill-fated defense. It’s a centuries-old concept known as “the castle doctrine,” a collection of statutes that protect a person's right to use force to defend their property.
Some observers suggested a similar argument might come into play in the defense of a Kansas City man who answered a ring at his front door on Thursday evening, April 13, 2023. A pane of glass separated Andrew D. Lester and Ralph Yarl, who was standing just outside. Lester, 84, fired his weapon through the glass at the 16-year-old high school student.
Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson announced Monday that Lester, who is white, is facing charges for assault in the first degree and armed criminal action for shooting Ralph Yarl, who is Black, twice after Yarl mistakenly rang his doorbell looking for his younger brothers.
In a police statement, Lester said he opened the door and saw a Black male pulling on the storm door handle. Yarl said he did not pull on the door handle.
“As with any serious case, we approached this one in an objective and impartial manner," Thompson said. "We look forward to obtaining a just result.”
From Lester’s perspective, a just result might involve claiming he was justified in shooting Yarl because he was protecting himself. Building on the traditions of the “castle doctrine,” Missouri’s Stand Your Ground law allows a person to use physical force “to the extent he or she reasonably believes such force to be necessary to defend himself or herself.”
It will be up to Lester and his legal team to decide whether they have a chance at an acquittal under Stand Your Ground. But Kansas City criminal defense attorney Kevin Jamison said the facts of the case — as we know them so far — do not meet the standard for Stand Your Ground.
“Stand your ground doesn’t come into play unless the person is attacking you,” said Jamison, who’s been practicing for more than 40 years. “There’s been nothing that indicates the young man was threatening the older gentleman.”
In fact, Jamison said, defendants are often too quick to consider the statute.
“The stand your ground law is raised as a possible defense, even when it has no possible relevance to the situation," Jamison said. "And the case we're currently hearing about in Clay County here: It has no relevance.”
Since no one tracks the use of the statute and some cases don’t make it to court, it’s hard to know how often Stand Your Ground is considered for a legal strategy and for what types of cases those are.
Stand Your Ground did have relevance in the case of a woman who fatally shot an off-duty Kansas City firefighter in October 2022. Charged with second degree murder, she claimed she shot Anthony Santi, 41, in defense of another person. After declining to prosecute the woman, the Jackson County Prosecutor's office said in a statement to the news media:
“We grieve with the family and community over this tragic loss of life of Mr. Santi. Missouri law governs this case, specifically self-defense and defense of others, leading us to decline charges after a careful review.”
The Missouri law allows the use of physical force “to defend himself or herself or a third person from what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by such other person.”
Lester turned himself in at the Clay County Detention Center on Tuesday. It is not yet apparent what his legal strategy will be in defending himself against the two felony charges. Jamison, who writes and lectures about self-defense law, doubts Stand Your Ground will be part of it.
“Self-defense is an affirmative defense,” he said. “So you have to prove that the other person was threatening you before you act in self-defense.”
The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.