A 27-year-old northeast Ohio man told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Criminal Justice on Dec. 5 that, more than six years after a justified shooting in self-defense, he is still in court awaiting a civil trial filed by the man he shot.
The committee is holding hearings on S.B. 184, which would introduce the "castle doctrine" in Ohio, precluding civil suits by perpetrators who are injured in the course of self-defense. Sponsors include Sens. David Goodman (R-New Albany), Tim Schaffer (R-Newark) and Steve Stivers (R-Columbus). A companion bill in the Ohio House of Representatives, H.B. 264, is sponsored by Reps. Larry Flowers (R-Canal Winchester) and Jon Peterson (R-Delaware).
Ryan Cundiff said he has spent years doing menial jobs, waiting for the lawsuit against him to resolve.
"My life is literally on hold and has been for seven years," he said. "I cannot own property, or establish a personal savings, as I fear for the consequences that lie ahead."
After a shooting Sept. 17, 2001, when Cundiff and his girlfriend were assaulted while camping, Cundiff himself was arrested and charged criminally. Cundiff said he was tempted by a plea bargain, exchanging a guilty plea for a six-month sentence, but he girded himself and went to trial.
"Imagine my terrible choice," he said. "I could go to trial, risk seven years in prison, spend thousands of dollars, and rely on the jury, knowing full well I was innocent, or I could take the easier, guaranteed deal that would allow me to avoid a long prison term. I chose the jury route, but it was a terrible gamble with my life."
In the more than five years since he was acquitted on criminal charges, Cundiff said, the only significant action in the civil suit was a successful effort by Cundiff's insurance company to obtain a ruling that his insurance did not have to pay any of his expenses, on the grounds that the shooting was deliberate.
"I'm angry with my life," Cundiff said. "I could have graduated from graduate school this past year. Instead, I clean trash out of vacant, foreclosed homes."
Other witnesses included Columbus resident Ellen Wickham, who told the committee that exposure to civil suits is unjust to people who act in justifiable self-defense.
"Why am I at risk for losing everything I have worked hard for if the criminal I defended myself against sues me in civil court?" she said.
Ranking Minority Member Lance Mason, D-Cleveland, challenged another witness, Cleveland resident Larry Morley, who told the committee about two incidents in the past year in which he was accosted and put in fear of his safety. Morley said that if his experiences had escalated into a shooting, the risk of civil liability would be unfair.
But Mason said he feared people who used guns in self-defense would have incorrect perceptions about the danger they were in.
"Don't you think there should be some kind of objective standard how we can determine what constitutes a reasonable fear that would justify deadly force?" Mason asked.
"I don't know what you mean by objective standard," Morley said.
Mason: "If we all agree, you feel threatened in some circumstances, (where) I would not, and someone else would feel even less threatened?"
Morley: "But what do you determine is reasonable? If (a man who accosted Morley) would have produced a gun, would that not be (grounds for) reasonable (fear)?"
"I agree if someone pulls a gun on you, that might be, but that didn't happen," Mason said.
"No, that's why I drove away," Morley said. "But he threatened. He said, 'I'm going to shoot you.' You can't get much more threatening than that, other than to pull it and shoot."
Mason responded that he was not comforted.
"There has to be some standard by which we decide," he said.