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Iowa’s ‘stand your ground’ law will be tested following the jury verdict in the 2017 Ped Mall shooting


Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

In a typical criminal trial, the announcement of the jury’s verdict is the most important moment. But the trial of Lamar Wilson for the deadly Aug. 27 shooting on Iowa City’s Ped Mall will be an exception. Because a post-conviction hearing will be the first test of Iowa’s “stand your ground” (SYG) law.

On Wednesday, a Polk County jury found Wilson guilty of voluntary manslaughter, intimidation with a dangerous weapon, and two counts of assault with intent to inflict serious injury convictions. Wilson never denied firing five shots during an early morning confrontation on the Ped Mall, killing one person and injuring two, but maintained he feared for his life and safety, and was therefore immune from prosecution. (The trial was moved from Johnson County to Polk, due to the potential impact of pre-trial publicity on jurors.)

Under the state’s SYG law, anyone in “any place where the person is lawfully present” may 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.

Prior to Gov. Terry Branstad signing the SYG bill passed in April 2017 by the legislature into law, Iowans needed to make a reasonable effort to retreat from a perceived danger before using deadly force, unless they were in their homes or reasonably believed themselves to be in immediate danger of death or severe injury.

The facts in the Ped Mall shooting case weren’t in dispute. Wilson admitted shooting the three men who confronted him on the Ped Mall in the earlier hours of Aug. 27. The prosecution did not dispute that those three men were armed. But in a pre-trial hearing, Judge Paul Miller ruled that whether the SYG law applied in Wilson’s case would only be considered in a post-conviction hearing, if he was convicted.

Since the legislature did not specify at what stage in a criminal proceeding a SYG defense should apply, Miller relied on the 1989 Iowa Supreme Court ruling in State v. King to make his decision. In that case, the defendant claimed a state law providing immunity to anyone reporting a case of child abuse should apply to her, because even though she was the person who injured the child, she was also the person who brought the child to the doctor for treatment. The trial court judge in that case ruled that the immunity claim would not be considered until after the jury’s verdict. The state Supreme Court upheld that decision.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to enact a SYG law, and it is the only one of the 24 states with such a law where its use and impact has been studied in depth.

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 African-American. A 2015 study also found a statistically significant correlation between the race of the person shot and successful use of the law. That study, which examined 204 shooting cases in Florida between 2005 and 2013, found that juries were twice as likely to convict when the person shot was white, compared to cases where a person of color was shot.

“These results are similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement with the victim is non-white,” the authors of the study, which appeared in the academic journal Social Science & Medicine, concluded.

In the Ped Mall shooting, both the shooter and the people shot were all African-American.

A date has not yet been set for the hearing on the SYG defense. Wilson is potentially facing up to 24 years in prison following the four crimes of which he was convicted on Wednesday.

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