Judge rejects ‘stand your ground’ defense in Ped Mall shooting

illustration by Jordan Sellergren

On Tuesday, a judge ruled that Lamar Wilson is not entitled to immunity under Iowa’s “stand your ground” (SYG) law for his actions in the Aug. 27 shooting on Iowa City’s Ped Mall. 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 ruling stands in stark contrast to one made by a judge in Red Oak last month. In that case, Judge James Heckerman ruled that Kevin Staley did not have to stand trial for the fatal shooting of a man, because Staley was immune from prosecution under the SYG law.

According to the 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.” Under 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.

On Tuesday, Sixth Judicial District Judge Paul Miller ruled that the SYG was “void for vagueness,” because it laid out no procedures to be followed when applying it. In his ruling, Miller also said the law didn’t specify that a shooter would be immune from prosecution, just “from criminal or civil liability for all damages incurred by the aggressor.” Miller said was the law’s wording was so vague it could be referring to such things as court costs, rather than all criminal liability.

The Ped Mall and Red Oak shootings both happened after Gov. Terry Branstad signed the SYG measure into law in April 2017.

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 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.

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