BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, April 01, 2012
4/01/12 at 3:59 AM
On a sweltering, dead-still night, the sound of someone outside her window awakened my mother, alarming her enough to call an older neighbor. Roused from a dead sleep, he told her he didn't have a gun and to call the cops.
So much for neighborly valiance.
It was the mid-'50s and we lived in a small house in a quiet, Leave-It-To-Beaver-type neighborhood near Kansas City, Mo., a city that in 1953 was rocked by the kidnapping-murder of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease, son of a wealthy local car dealer.
Few homes had air-conditioning so our screened windows stayed open in summer, even at night on weeks when my father, a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper, worked the 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift. For protection, my parents kept a loaded handgun in their night stand.
Alone in the house that night with her 5-year-old, my mother made the decision, perhaps unwise, not to wait for the prowler to make the first move. She wasn't looking for trouble but she was ready to face it. She put me behind her, and with a flashlight in one hand and her weapon in the other, we stepped outside, circled the house and thankfully encountered no one.
Had the prowler appeared instead of fleeing, I have no doubt but what my mom would have stood her ground. At 25, for better or worse, fight, not flight, was her first instinct.
The incident, the scariest in my young life, made a lasting impression. In years since, I've occasionally wondered what would have happened had the Peeping Tom (or worse) turned out to be foolish kids, hiding in the bushes to scare a neighbor, and nothing more. Everyone's lives would have changed in a heartbeat if my mother had reacted by opening fire.
We often forget that self defense is a judgment call made under stress. The level of danger can be viewed differently by others after the fact and sometimes challenged.
Over the past month, the Florida shooting of an unarmed Trayvor Martin, 17, by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer, has ignited passions. One national poll released Friday showed most Americans polled favored Zimmerman being arrested.
So far, the investigation has produced far more questions than answers. It also has prompted criticism of self-defense laws. Those laws have expanded considerably in recent years, thanks to lawmakers anxious to appease constituents fearful of crime, and to please such groups as the National Rifle Association.
Demands for a repeal of expanded self-defense laws have risen by the day in Florida, which in 2005 became the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law saying there was no duty to retreat for victims involved in a confrontation imperiling their safety.
Previously, self-defense laws in most states permitted the use of reasonable force, including deadly force, by individuals to protect themselves inside their homes - the so-called "Castle Doctrine," rooted in English common law. Outside the castle/home, however, individuals generally still had a duty to retreat from an aggressor, if possible, to avoid confrontation.
That changed with the Florida law; individuals could stand their ground outside their homes, in their cars and elsewhere, provided they had a right or invitation to be in that location.
Twenty-three states, including Oklahoma, subsequently passed similar laws. Anyone who uses deadly force under the law is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force.
Last spring, the Legislature expanded the self-defense law here, allowing individuals the right to use deadly force when in fear of imminent peril, death or great bodily harm in the workplace.
The expansion undoubtedly was a reaction to charges against Jerome Jay Ersland, 59.
In 2009, the Oklahoma City pharmacist shot an unarmed robber, Autwun "Speedy" Parker, 16. Last May, a jury convicted Ersland of first-degree murder and he later received a life sentence. Prosecutors claimed that Parker was unconscious from a shot to the head when Ersland retrieved a second gun and shot him five more times. Ersland's actions equated to an execution, they said, not self defense.
In a truly courageous but unpopular decision, jurors acted upon the evidence, not emotion.
Since Stand Your Ground became law, Oklahoma generally has not had much controversy involving self-defense shootings. That apparently is not the case in Florida.
A recent editorial in the Orlando, Fla., Sentinel said that self defense always has been an acceptable basis for prosecutors to dismiss charges or not pursue charges in the first place. "Nobody wants to see someone who was genuinely in fear for their life end up in jail because they took action to protect themselves or others. But there's too much latitude when those who are the aggressors are able to shoot, kill and avoid prosecution."
"We don't know - and perhaps never will - who started the fight between Zimmerman and Martin," the editorial said. "What we do know is that while Florida's an East Coast state, it's looking more and more like a Wild West."
If Oklahoma ever reaches that point I'd like to think it would re-examine its self-defense laws to see if they're too broad or too permissive. But, for now, no repeal is justified. Oklahomans must remember that such laws are for protection - they're not a hunting license.
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379