The boundaries of the castle doctrine and make-my-day legislation came under scrutiny in a Mississippi appellate case this past summer. The defendant, Banton, had shot and killed a man with whom his father was fighting on the family’s front lawn. Banton’s defense relied in part on Mississippi’s Castle Doctrine statute, which purports to provide that there is a legal presumption of a reasonable fear of death or grave bodily harm under circumstances where there is the commission of a felony upon either the person using force or their “Castle”. (In many jurisdictions, such a statute would be more accurately characterized as a “Make-My-Day” statute, as it is a substantial expansion of the traditional Castle Doctrine of common law, in which the doctrine serves only to remove a person’s duty to retreat before using force in self defense.)
After Banton was found guilty by the jury of murder he asked that the trial court approve a motion for a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict”–essentially asking that the trial judge reject the jury’s finding of guilt–on the grounds that the presumption of reasonable fear of death or grave bodily harm provided by the Castle Doctrine statute fatally undermined the prosecution’s case against him. The trial court denied this motion to reverse the jury verdict, and sentenced Banton (then 17 years old) to life in prison. This appeal followed. The appellate court agreed with the trial court that Mississippi’s Castle Doctrine did not serve to protect Banton’s use of force in this instance, and affirmed the conviction and sentence. Banton v. Mississippi, 2010 Miss. App. LEXIS 381 (July 20, 2010).
Banton, his father Harley, and Banton’s friends Shane Keel (who was ultimately killed) and Tina Kramer were all present at Harley’s house. An argument between Banton and Keel woke the father Harley, who mistakenly thought that Keel had been arguing with the Tina Kramer. Harley asked Keel to leave, but Keel refused, and instead remained in the front yard drinking beer and trying to talk with Tina Kramer. Harley repeated his request that Keel leave the property several times, but Keel repeatedly refused to do so. Harley then picked up a shovel and began to hit Keel with it, later testifying at trial that although Keel never hit him he was fearful that Keel would “beat the crap out of me.” While Harley was hitting Keel with the shovel, Banton came out of the house with a shotgun, fired, and killed Keel. At trial Harley testified that the only reason he knew why Barton would shoot Keel was to protect Harley, his father. Banton also testified at trial, and stated that he fired the gun only after he saw Keel’s hands go up and he thought Keel had a knife. (No knife was recovered from the scene.)
The appellate court recognized that it was appropriate to consider Mississippi’s Castle Doctrine in Banton’s trial, and cited the relevant statute as stating in part: “A person who uses defensive force shall be presumed to have reasonably feared imminent death or great bodily harm, or the commission of a felony upon him or upon his dwelling . . . [if] the person who used defensive force knew or had reason to believe that the forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.” Miss. Code Ann. §97-3-15(3).
The appellate court, however, concluded that the facts of the case did not warrant application of the Castle Doctrine in this instance, because the facts did not support the conclusion that “the person who used defensive force [Banton] knew or had reason to believe that [a forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.”
In particular, the appellate court noted that Keel “was neither in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering nor had unlawfully and forcibly entered the Banton’s property when Banton shot Keel. Moreover, there was no evidence that Keel was going to commit an assault, offer violence to anyone on the property, or commit some other crime on the property. On the contrary the evidence only established that Keel was on the Barton’s property, unarmed, when Banton shot him. Therefore, we find that Banton’s killing of Keel cannot be justified under the “Castle Doctrine”.” The court concluded that on this issue “the evidence was legally sufficient to establish the elements of murder . . . [and] there was also insufficient evidence on the basis of self defense presented by Banton to overcome the State’s case.” They accordingly affirmed the conviction of murder and the sentence of life imprisonment.
One interesting facet of this case is the appellate court’s distinction between the act of unlawfully entering upon someone’s property on the one hand, and unlawfully remaining on that property on the other. In contrast, the law of trespass generally makes no such distinction–a person may be a trespasser whether they enter a property without permission or remain on that property after permission has been revoked. Once Harley had asked Keel to leave the property, and particularly after he made affirmative efforts to enforce that request, Keel’s presence on the property was arguably no longer lawful, in that he had become a trespasser rather than a guest. In terms of Mississippi’s Castle Doctrine, however, the appellate court appears to be arguing that the Doctrine can apply upon the act of unlawful entry, but not upon the act of unlawfully remaining when asked to leave. These types of fine distinctions are the very type that all too often entrap the well-intentioned armed citizen, and emphasize the critical importance of understanding exactly how the courts apply the statutes to real world cases.
The case also reinforces the essential responsibility of the armed citizen to always conduct themselves, even in the face of apparent conflict, in a cool and responsible manner. It seems likely in this instance that everyone involved may have consumed more than their fair share of beer that evening, leading to poor judgment all around, and ultimately the unnecessary death of one young man and the consequential life-long imprisonment of another. Absent the alcohol-fueled misjudgment and a better understanding of what the law of self defense permitted, neither of these outcomes was necessary.
IMPORTANT: This blog post does NOT constitute legal advice, nor does it purport to accurately communicate the laws or court decisions of the jurisdiction of the actual case discussed. This blog post is intended solely for ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES, and to provide a forum for the discussion and debate of important issues relevant to the law of self defense. If you are in immediate need of legal counsel, retain a competent attorney in your jurisdiction.