Judge rejects ‘stand your ground’ claim in Cedar Rapids shooting

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

A judge has rejected an attempt by a defendant involved in a Cedar Rapids shooting to invoke the “stand your ground” (SYG) law passed by the Iowa legislature in 2017. Sixth Judicial District Judge Patrick Grady ruled Michael Hodges will have to stand trial for shooting Zevon Johnson in January.

Hodges, a licensed gun owner, was armed when he encountered Johnson outside Pub 217 on Jan. 28. According to Hodges, he believed his life was in danger because of previous altercations with Johnson. Hodges and Johnson both pulled out guns and fired at each other. Hodges’ shot struck Johnson in the chest, Johnson’s shot missed Hodges.

Earlier this month, Johnson entered into a plea deal. In exchange for pleading guilty to carrying a weapon without a permit, an aggravated misdemeanor, the Linn County Attorney’s office dropped charges of attempted murder, intimidation with a dangerous weapon and going armed with intent. Hodges is currently facing charges of attempted murder, willfully causing serious injury and intimidation with a dangerous weapon.

In his ruling, Grady said Iowa’s SYG law would only shield Hodges from “criminal liability,” and does not prevent him from being prosecuted for the charges arising from the Jan. 28 shooting. Grady pointed out that Hodges can request a directed verdict of not guilty after the prosecution rests its case during his upcoming trial.

Grady’s ruling is in direct contrast to a February ruling issued in a SYG case by Fourth Judicial District Judge James Heckerman. In that case, Heckerman decided Kevin Staley was immune from prosecution in the shooting death of Devin Davis, because his actions were covered by the SYG law. Staley claimed he feared for his life during an altercation with Davis in the western Iowa town of Red Oak.

According to the SYG law, a person in “any place where the person is lawfully present” is allowed 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.” 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.

Grady’s ruling on Monday was largely in accord with another SYG decision.

In November 2017, Sixth Judicial District Judge Paul Miller ruled that Lamar Wilson had to stand trial for a shooting on the Ped Mall, and Wilson’s claim of immunity under the SYG law would be decided in a hearing if Wilson was found guilty. In February, 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. Following a post-conviction hearing, Miller rejected Wilson’s claim that he should be have immunity from criminal liability under the SYG law. Wilson was sentenced to 24 years in jail.

SYG laws in other states have been criticized for racial disparities in how those laws are applied. Iowa’s SYG law has only been used by three defendants. Staley, who received immunity from prosecution under the law is white. Both Wilson and Hodges are black.

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