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In two recent cases, homeowners have been charged with shooting people on their property. Here’s what the law says

<i>Charlie Riedel/AP</i><br/>A police officer drives past the house on April 17
Charlie Riedel/AP
A police officer drives past the house on April 17

By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

In two recent cases, two different people approached the wrong house and were both shot by the homeowner without exchanging a single word — one person lost their life from the encounter, another survived and is recovering from gunshot wounds to their head and arm.

On April 13, Ralph Yarl, 16, was shot when he went to the wrong address in Kansas City, Missouri, to pick up his siblings. The 84-year-old White homeowner told police he fired immediately after answering the doorbell when he saw the Black teen pulling on an exterior door handle, according to the probable cause document obtained by CNN.

Miles away, on April 15, in upstate New York, Kaylin Gillis, 20, was struck and killed by gunfire as a man fired two shots from his front porcfh, after Gills and three others accidentally turned into the wrong driveway while looking for a friend’s house in rural upstate New York, authorities said. Both Gillis and the homeowner are White.

Both exchanges with eerily similar details, have renewed the debate over what rights homeowners have when it comes to perceived threats and defending their property.

‘Stand your ground’ laws could come into play and what that means

“Stand your ground” and the “castle doctrine” deal with a very specific question, according to University of California, Los Angeles, law professor Eugene Volokh: If someone reasonably fears death, serious bodily injury, etc., but can avoid the danger with complete safety by retreating, can that person still stay where they are and use deadly force?

“They allow people to respond to threats of death, serious bodily injury, rape, and some other serious crimes with deadly force,” Volokh told CNN.

Not all states have “stand your ground” laws and those that do, word — and even enforce — them differently.

At least 28 states and Puerto Rico have such laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and at least 10 of those states have laws that literally say that you can “stand your ground.”

The “castle doctrine” is the legal notion that your home is your castle, and you have the right to use lethal force to defend your home and not retreat. A number of states have enshrined the castle doctrine in statutory law, sometimes with slightly different guidelines for when deadly force can be used.

Whereas “stand your ground” says that even when a person is outside of their home, they can stay where they are without retreating, even if they can avoid the danger by retreating, according to Volokh. Only about three-fourths of all states take this view, he said.

With some exceptions, Missouri law says a person may generally use physical force if the individual “reasonably believes such force to be necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person from what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by such other person.”

“The decision of whether to prosecute the man who shot Yarl will come down to one key aspect of Missouri’s stand your ground law: reasonableness,” Josh Campbell, CNN security correspondent and former FBI special agent, said. “Was that type of potentially lethal force reasonable? And did the shooter reasonably believe Yarl posed a threat? Even in your home, the law says you can’t simply open fire on someone at your doorway without being able to articulate a threat justifying that kind of deadly force.”

New York state law similarly allows for an individual to use deadly force in self-defense if they reasonably believe another person “is using or about to use deadly physical force.”

Although New York requires a so-called “duty to retreat” — that is, avoiding the need to use deadly force by retreating from the situation in cases where it is safe to do so — such a requirement to remove oneself from the situation is not required in one’s home, Campbell said. Even so, using deadly force against someone in one’s home still generally requires a reasonable belief that the subject of the deadly force poses a serious imminent threat.

Supporters of the laws, including the National Rifle Association, say they give people the right to protect themselves, no matter where they are. Critics say the laws encourage violence and allow for legal racial bias.

In Yarl’s case, Kansas City criminal defense attorney Kevin L. Jamison told CNN’s Lucy Kafanov, “stand your ground” most likely wouldn’t apply and instead, pointed to the “castle doctrine.”

The “castle doctrine” gives a person the right to defend themselves from someone they feel is threatening them if they’re in a place where they have a right to be in, like your home, Jamison said. But you would need to prove that you were being threatened.

While it’s hard to say for sure without seeing video or witness statements, simply ringing a door is not enough grounds to prove a threat, he said.

“You can’t just shoot someone who shows up on your porch and rings the doorbell,” Jamison said. “That’s what doorbells are for.”

The duty to retreat doctrine, which is the opposite of stand your ground says when a person is outside of their home and is lawfully present in that place, they can’t use deadly force if they can avoid the danger with complete safety by retreating. About one-fourth of states have this view, he said.

How ‘stand your ground’ has been used across the country

In Florida, where the first “stand your ground” law was passed in 2005, such a law was used in the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 while he was walking home from a convenience store. Zimmerman’s supporters said he was exercising his Second Amendment right to bear arms and Florida’s “stand your ground law” could have given him immunity.

Florida’s law allows people to meet “force with force” if they believe they or someone else is in danger of being seriously harmed by an assailant. Under the law, a person can use deadly force anywhere as long as he is not engaged in an unlawful activity, is being attacked in a place he has a right to be, and reasonably believes that his life and safety are in danger as a result of an overt act or perceived threat committed by someone else.

In Texas, jurors were allowed to consider the “castle doctrine” in the 2018 murder case against Amber Guyger, the White former Dallas police officer, who said she mistakenly entered the wrong apartment and killed Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man. In October 2019, a jury ultimately found Guyger guilty of murdering Jean and sentenced her to 10 years in prison.

And more recently in Texas, “a state with one of the strongest ‘stand your ground’ laws,” according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas pardons board is considering a request from Abbott to pardon Daniel Perry, a man convicted this month of fatally shooting a protester at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020.

The Texas law says a person can use force as a means of self-defense if they reasonably believe the force is immediately necessary to protect them against another’s use or attempted use of force.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Josh Campbell and Lucy Kafanov contributed to this report.

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