Iowa’s ‘stand your ground’ law successfully used for the first time

Illustration by Blair Gauntt

On Monday, the first successful use of the Iowa’s “stand your ground” (SYG) law occurred in Red Oak, when a judge declared Kevin Staley was immune from prosecution in the shooting death of Devin Davis.

Although the judge’s ruling represents the first successful use of the SYG law, the Staley case in not the first one in which a defendant has attempted to use the law. Lamar Wilson, who shot three men — one of whom died — during a confrontation on Iowa City’s Ped Mall last year, filed a pre-trial motion seeking immunity from prosecution. On Oct. 27, Judge Paul Miller ruled a decision on whether the SYG law applied in Wilson’s case would not be considered until after the jury’s verdict.

Last week, Wilson was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, intimidation with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault with intent to inflict serious injury convictions. He faces up to 24 years in prison. The SYG hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Staley was involved in a physical confrontation with Davis and another man in Red Oak on the night of Oct. 11. After being knocked to the ground, Staley shot Davis.

Wilson was confronted by three men on the Ped Mall during the early hours of Aug. 27. Wilson said he shot at the men, killing Kaleek Jones, because he feared for his life. Prosecutors conceded that all the parties in the confrontation had guns.

In Staley’s case, Judge James Heckerman ruled that since the SYG law offers a person immunity from prosecution, its applicability should be determined pre-trial. The 2017 law allows a person in “any place where the person is lawfully present” to use deadly force “as long as there is a reasonable basis for the belief [that the person is in danger] — and the person acts reasonably in response to that belief.” According to the law, it doesn’t matter if the person was wrong about whether the danger was real, or if authorities believe that the situation did not merit the use of lethal force.

In his ruling that the SYG law would only be considered in a post-conviction hearing in Wilson’s case, Judge Miller relied on a 1989 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, State v. King. In that ruling, the state Supreme Court upheld a judge’s decision not to consider an immunity claim in a child abuse case until after a jury returned a guilty verdict.

Judge Heckerman didn’t mention State v. King in his decision granting immunity to Staley. Instead, he cited cases from Florida in which that state’s SYG law has been used.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to adopt a SYG law. A 2016 study found there was no consistency in how Florida officials applied the law. At various times, police agencies have invoked the law to justify not referring shooting cases to prosecutors. Prosecutors have invoked the law to not bring charges against shooters. Judges sometimes use the law to dismiss indictments, but other times include the law in instructions to a jury.

Other studies have shown racial disparities in how the law is applied in Florida. It has proven to be a successful defense in a significant number of cases where the shooter is white, but not when the shooter is black.

In the Red Oak shooting case, both the shooter and the person shot were white.

In the Ped Mall shooting, the shooter and the people shot were all black.