With the conviction of John White in New York for the killing of a teen on his lawn and the possible indictment of Joe Horn in Texas for killing two burglars on his lawn, the national debate over the so-called Castle Doctrine or Make My Day laws is intensifying.
The White case involves the shooting of a white teen by a black homeowner, who insists that he was afraid for himself and his son. When his son returned from a party saying that white teens were chasing him, his father gave him a shotgun and took a handgun and met them on his front lawn. That was a critical mistake since he escalated the threat and did not take any effort to avoid what became a lethal confrontation.
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The same escalation is blamed for the deaths in Texas. Joe Horn shot two men who had broken into his neighbors home. The transcript of from the police dispatcher certainly make Horn seem eager to shoot the men who crossed onto his lawn despite repeatedly orders from the police dispatcher not to do so. In fact, there was a plainclothes officer who arrived just as Horn was gunning down the men.
I recently discussed these cases on this NPR show. The tape is played at the beginning of the segment.
Here is a partial transcript:
“I’ve got a shotgun . . . Do you want me to stop them?””Nope, don’t do that – ain’t no property worth shooting somebody over, OK?””Hurry up man, catch these guys, will you? ‘Cause I’m ain’t gonna let ‘em go, I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m not gonna let ‘em go. I’m not gonna let ‘em get away with this —-.”
Looking out Horn says he can see them.
“I don’t know if they’re armed or not. I know they got a crowbar ’cause that’s what they broke the windows with. … Man, this is scary, I can’t believe this is happening in this neighborhood.”
As Horn gets more agitated the dispatcher tries to keep him on the phone and asks if he can see the suspects but they had retreated into the target’s house.
“I can go out the front [to look], but if I go out the front I’m bringing my shotgun with me, I swear to God. I am not gonna let ‘em get away with this, I can’t take a chance on getting killed over this, OK? I’m gonna shoot, I’m gonna shoot.”
“Stay inside the house and don’t go out there, OK?” the dispatcher responds. “I know you’re pissed off, I know what you’re feeling, but it’s not worth shooting somebody over this, OK?”
“I don’t want to, but I mean if I go out there, you know, to see what the hell is going on, what choice am I gonna have?
“No, I don’t want you to go out there, I just asked if you could see anything out there.”
The dispatcher asks if a vehicle could be seen; Horn said no. The dispatcher tells Horn to stay in the house.
Almost five minutes into the call, police had not arrived.
“I can’t see if [the suspects are] getting away or not,” Horn said.
Horn told the dispatcher that he doesn’t know the neighbors well, unlike those living on the other side of his home. “I can assure you if it had been their house, I would have already done something, because I know them very well,” he said.
Dispatcher: “I want you to listen to me carefully, OK?”
Dispatcher: “I got ultras coming out there. I don’t want you to go outside that house. And I don’t want you to have that gun in your hand when those officers are poking around out there.”
Horn: “I understand that, OK, but I have a right to protect myself too, sir, and you understand that. And the laws have been changed in this country since September the First and you know it and I know it.”
Dispatcher: “I understand.”Horn: “I have a right to protect myself …”
Dispatcher: “I’m …”
Horn: “And a shotgun is a legal weapon, it’s not an illegal weapon.”
Dispatcher: “No, it’s not, I’m not saying that, I’m just not wanting you to …”
Horn: “OK, he’s coming out the window right now, I gotta go, buddy. I’m sorry, but he’s coming out the window. ”
Dispatcher: “No, don’t, don’t go out the door, Mister Horn. Mister Horn…”
Horn: “They just stole something, I’m going out to look for ‘em, I’m sorry, I ain’t letting them get away with this —-. They stole something, they got a bag of stuff. I’m doing it!”
Dispatcher: “Mister, do not go outside the house.”Horn: “I’m sorry, this ain’t right, buddy.”
Dispatcher: “You gonna get yourself shot if you go outside that house with a gun, I don’t care what you think.”
Horn: “You wanna make a bet?”
Dispatcher: “Stay in the house.”
Horn: “There, one of them’s getting away!
Dispatcher: “That’s alright, property’s not something worth killing someone over. OK? Don’t go out the house, don’t be shooting nobody. I know you’re pissed and you’re frustrated but don’t do it.”
Horn: “They got a bag of loot.”
Dispatcher: “OK. How big is the bag?” . . .
Dispatcher: “Which way are they going?”
Horn: “I can’t … I’m going outside. I’ll find out.”
Dispatcher: “I don’t want you going outside, Mister…”
Horn: “Well, here it goes buddy, you hear the shotgun clicking and I’m going.”
Dispatcher: “Don’t go outside.”
On the tape of the 911 call, the shotgun can be heard being cocked and Horn can be heard going outside and confronting someone.
“Boom! You’re dead!” he shouts. You can clearly hear Horn shoot both men. He then returns to the phone.
“Get the law over here quick. I’ve now, get, one of them’s in the front yard over there, he’s down, he almost run down the street. I had no choice. They came in the front yard with me, man, I had no choice! … Get somebody over here quick, man.”
Dispatcher: “Mister Horn, are you out there right now?”
Horn: “No, I am inside the house, I went back in the house. Man, they come right in my yard, I didn’t know what the — they was gonna do, I shot ‘em, OK?”
Dispatcher: “Did you shoot somebody?
Horn: “Yes, I did, the cops are here right now.”
Dispatcher: “Where are you right now?”
Horn: “I’m inside the house. …”
Dispatcher: “Mister Horn, put that gun down before you shoot an officer of mine. I’ve got several officers out there without uniforms on.”
Horn: “I am in the front yard right now. I am …”
Dispatcher: “Put that gun down! There’s officers out there without uniforms on. Do not shoot anybody else, do you understand me? I’ve got police out there…”
Horn: “I understand, I understand. I am out in the front yard waving my hand right now.”
Dispatcher: “You don’t have a gun with you, do you?
Horn: “No, no, no.”
Dispatcher: “You see a uniformed officer? Now lay down on the ground and don’t do nothing else.”You can then hear yelling on the tape.
Dispatcher: “Lay down on the ground, Mister Horn. Do what the officers tell you to do right now.”
The two men that Horn shoot were Miguel Antonio Dejesus, 38, and Diego Ortiz, 30. Both had criminal records and a crowbar was later found by the neighbors. They were shot at only 15 feet.
Local activists have protested Horn home while neighbors have rallied to his defense. The charges of racial animus seem to be far-fetched. After all, Horn was defended the home of his neighbors who were Vietnamese. The most credible charge is that Horn was just itching to drop the hammer and escalated a non-violent situation against the express orders of the police.
Make my day laws are designed to get rid of the duty to retreat in such circumstances, though in this case there was no need to retreat rather than a need not to intervene in deference to the police.
Interestingly, the police dispatcher actually defined the common law rule. The common law does not view any property worth killing over — including a criminal’s life. Thus, a homeowner would have to show self-defense. This privilege allows the use of lethal force so long as it is commensurate and contemporaneous. Thus, you can not escalate a level of violence (though juries cut defendants a great deal of slack on this question) and you cannot retaliate later against a suspect.In some ways, these laws solved a problem that did not exist. Few juries would seriously consider a lawsuit by a home invader that they were treated too roughly by a homeowner. Moreover, what constitutes self-defense is liberally defined by prosecutors.
Around 18 states have such laws, though the number is higher when you consider variations like “Shoot the Carjacker” laws and “Make My Day Better” laws (the latter allowing the use of lethal force to protect businesses and cars). Ironically, these laws more often come into public scrutiny for mistakes when homeowners shoot drunk neighbors or their own family.
The most notorious case involved the shooting of a Japanese student in Baton Rouge. The 16-year-old Japanese exchange student, Yoshihiro Hattori, was looking for a Halloween party and scared the wife of Rodney Peairs when he spoke a strange language and approached the house. Peairs shot him in the chest with a .44 Magnum handgun and was later cleared under a Make My Day law as mistaken defense of his home and self.
As the NPR segment discusses, the Horn and White cases are only two of a number of recent cases involving such use of lethal force.