Progress in the fight. Enjoy.

May 14, 2007

Critics still target deadly force law, but its impact is unclear

By Vicky Eckenrode,
The Times-Union

ATLANTA - It's been almost a year since a new law broadened protection for Georgians who use deadly force to protect themselves and their property against attackers.

Often referred to as the "stand your ground" law, the measure since has cropped up in court cases for people arguing they were justified for killing in self-defense and provided additional cover for those involved in a rash of home invasion shootings in Augusta.

Sen. Greg Goggans, R-Douglas, introduced the legislation last year after seeing Florida pass a similar law in 2005.

Georgia already had a law in place allowing people to use force if someone was breaking into their house. The previous law also covered people protecting their car or business.

Using deadly force to protect any other property was only allowed to prevent a violent felony, such as murder, robbery or kidnapping.

Under the current law, which took effect July 1, 2006, people are immune from criminal charges and from being sued when they feel the same threats anywhere, not just on their property.

Goggans' measure also made clear that people don't have a "duty to retreat" before resorting to hurting or killing an assailant.

Some advocacy groups had contended that the existing law provided adequate protection for people if they were attacked or if their homes were broken into. The almost-year-old law with its expanded protections has led to a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality, critics say.

"We thought, and I think that we were correct, that the legislation significantly broadened the concept of self-defense in the minds of most citizens and probably a lot of criminals," said Alice Johnson, director of Georgians for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that lobbied against the measure last year. "We were very worried that what we would see in the long run, a significant increase of response of deadly force anytime they may have felt threatened, whether in fact that threat was a reality or not."

Johnson said her group is trying to work with prosecutors to find a way to track the impact of the law in cases around the state.

In recent weeks, several Augusta residents have acted out in self-defense.
A 56-year-old woman shot 19-year-old Justin Brent Haynie after he broke into her home in the middle of the night and threatened her with a knife with the intent to rape, according to prosecutors.

Haynie, who survived the shooting, has been charged with multiple crimes.
Errol Lavar Royal, 29, died while attempting a home invasion. He was shot by homeowner Army Capt. Barree Bollinger, an Iraq war veteran.

And Lakashia Walker, 23, was shot in the neck while trying to break into a backyard shed belonging to 84-year-old Frank Sams, who - fed up with recent robberies at his house - was sitting outside to watch over his property when Walker came up. She remained hospitalized last week.

The incidents all happened within a nine-day period.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said that, of the three homeowners, only Sams might have fallen into a gray area before the self-defense law was strengthened.

"But the other two, absolutely not," he said.

Strength said authorities haven't found anything that would lead to charging any of the three homeowners. He said the series of high-profile shootings has drawn strong opinions within the community, most supporting the homeowners' right to defend themselves.

"People are tired of this," Strength said. "Crime, of course, is not decreasing, and people are standing up for what's right, and that's what they should do."

The new law also has been cited in some court cases to build a stronger argument for people who have been charged with murder but are arguing that they acted in self-defense.

The state Supreme Court was petitioned for murder charges to be dropped based on the immunity protections in the new state law, but the justices in February didn't weigh in on the interpretation. Instead, they decided the case should go to trial before they handled an appeal.

Attorneys for former Atlanta police officer Raymond Bunn have said the murder case against him should be thrown out because of the new law.
In 2002, Bunn and his partner were patrolling Atlanta's Buckhead district in unmarked cars and caught a young man trying to break into a car, according to court documents Bunn filed. When they chased him, the man jumped into a sport utility vehicle and allegedly began driving toward the officers, hitting Bunn's knee as he fired at the car.

The shots killed 18-year-old Corey Ward and, three years later, Bunn was charged with murder.

His attorney, Manubir Arora, tried recently to get the case dropped because of the revised law. His motion is pending with a Fulton County Superior judge.
"The whole point was if you're going to be immune from prosecution," Arora said about the revised law. "Prior to 2006, you'd have to go to trial and face jurors with self-defense claims."