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Should we tolerate shooting through locked doors in self-defense

Cross posted from Frederick Leatherman Law Blog

Friday, August 1, 2014

Good morning:

A Pistorius-ügy - mi történt valójában?

Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius

With the Theodore Wafer trial on hold until Monday at 9:00 am, we return our attention to Oscar Pistorius.

You Magazine is reporting that he sold his house for R4.5 million ($420,000) to pay his escalating legal bills. The buyer is Louwtjie Louwrens, a Boksburg mining consultant who plans to rent it out.

Prosecution and defense have submitted their written closing arguments and Judge Thokozile Masipa has set aside Thursday and Friday next week for their oral summations.

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to witness a conjunction of two media intensive criminal cases that present the same issue:

Whether a person can justifiably kill another person in self-defense when that other person is on the other side of a locked door.

In the Pistorius case, the other person was his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius claims that he mistook her for an intruder after he was awakened by the sound of the bathroom window opening and the door to the toilet cubicle closing.

In the Wafer case, the other person was Renisha McBride, an intoxicated 19-year-old girl who had crashed her car into a parked car about 1 mile from Wafer’s house and walked away from the scene of the accident dazed and bleeding approximately 3 hours earlier. Wafer was awakened by McBride banging on his door. He unlocked and opened his inner front door and fired his shotgun through his locked outer screen door. Wafer first claimed that the gun fired accidentally and later switched to self-defense.

Neither Pistorius nor Wafer said anything to the person on the other side of the door before shooting.

In the Pistorius case, the prosecution claims Pistorius killed Steenkamp in a rage after she locked herself in the toilet cubicle to get away from him during an argument. Then he lied about it to escape responsibility for killing her.

The law of self-defense is similar in both cases. A person may justifiably use deadly force in self-defense, if they reasonably believe they are in imminent danger of death or serious injury.

The word “reasonable” in both cases refers to whether a reasonable person in the same situation as the shooter would have believed he was in imminent danger of death or serious injury.

In both cases, a locked door separated the victim from the shooter. The situation differs in that the victim in the Pistorius shooting could unlock the door whereas the victim in the Wafer shooting could not.

Both victims were unarmed.

Race is a probable factor in the Wafer case. He is white and she was black. Many people believe, myself included, that he would not have feared imminent death or serious injury, if she had been white.

South Africa does not have jury trials. Judge Theokile Masipa will decide the case assisted by her two assessors who can overrule her verdict, if they disagree with her conclusion.

The 12-person jury will decide whether Wafer is guilty or not guilty.

Join us in the comments below and let us know whether you believe we should tolerate shooting through locked doors in self-defense.

Photo from Lwp Kommunikáció licensed under Creative Commons

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Frederick Leatherman

Frederick Leatherman

I am a former law professor and felony criminal defense lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for 30 years specializing in death penalty cases, forensics, and drug cases.

I taught criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensics, and trial advocacy for three years after retiring from my law practice.

I also co-founded Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and recruited 40 lawyers who agreed to work pro bono, assisted by law students, representing 17 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the notorious Wenatchee Sex Ring witch-hunt prosecutions during the mid 90s. All 17 were freed from imprisonment.

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