Teen’s Death: Self Defense, or Montana Law Gone Wrong?

Rights, Crime

The killing of an exchange-student prankster last month renewed the self-defense debate, specifically raising more criticism of the state of Montana’s “Castle Doctrine” laws. Derin Dede illegally entered Markus Kaarma’s partially-opened garage as part of a common “garage hopping” prank, and a motion sensor — installed by the residents after the two previous burglaries —  was set off. The homeowner fired four shots into the dark.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kaarma of Missoula is free on $30,000 bond, charged with shooting the 17-year-old German student who illegally entered his garage. If convicted, Kaarma could face up to life in prison. The minimum term would be 10 years.

Was it Self Defense?

Many of us are wondering what ever happened to turning on the lights and saying, “Hey, kids, get out of here!” The family argues, however, that the home had already been broken into twice, leaving the parents of a 10-month-old child on edge.

Current Castle Doctrine allow civilians to defend themselves if in fear for their life or for injury, kidnapping, rape, etc. Previously, Montana residents were justified in using force only if an assailant tried to enter their home in a “violent, riotous or tumultuous manner.” The new law eliminates that language and makes it clear that residents can use force if they reasonably believe it is necessary to prevent an assault on themselves or someone else in the home.

The case is among many that raise concerns about these types of laws, the most prominent recent example being the George Zimmerman trial involving Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws.  A few have already speculated, as with Zimmerman, that Kaarma lured the teen into his house by leaving the garage door slightly open with a purse sitting on a table in the garage.

Has Montana Gone Too Far?

In an interview with a German news agency, Mr. Dede’s father blamed what he called an American cowboy culture for his son’s death. In Mr. Dede’s hometown, Hamburg, hundreds of his stunned relatives, friends and soccer teammates attended memorials, holding photos of Mr. Dede and unfurling a banner that read, “Our brother is dying while America is looking on.”

In Montana, which has one of the country’s highest rates of gun ownership, the killing has renewed criticism of the state’s “castle doctrine” laws, which allow residents wider latitude to use force to defend their homes. State Representative Ellie Boldman Hill, a Democrat from Missoula, has proposed repealing the recent changes, saying that the rules have fostered a shoot-first culture in Montana.

“I’m a liberal legislator from Montana, and I have a handgun in my closet,” she said. “We are proud of our gun-owning tradition, but enough is enough. It’s like a license to kill. People are walking around exercising vigilante justice.”

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, says things are working just fine. In a state where police are often an hour away, Marbut maintains that “It’s just not going to work to change Montana to a Chicago-style culture.”

What Will Happen to Kaarma?

After two burglaries in the home of his young family, Kaarma could easily be found justified in shooting the German teen. However, it may take time to fight the charges of deliberate homicide; a hair dresser told police Kaarma had claimed to be waiting up to shoot kids, that he wanted to kill them, and that he would be on the news. Police also interviewed two residents who claim they got into altercations with Kaarma the day before the shooting, while driving in the neighborhood. One resident described Kaarma as potentially under the influence of drugs or alcohol and angry. Obviously reports like this won’t help Kaarma’s case, and many hope cases like this will be taken into account when it comes to future self-defense legislation.