The length of a sentence recently handed down to a homeowner who was found guilty of murder in the death of an intruder…serves to remind the rest of us that even if someone has broken into your home, that act, absent any other compelling circumstances, does not grant a license to kill. Additionally, and once again, we see that one’s behavior incidental to the actual discharge of a weapon in a case of claimed self-defense will be evaluated as evidence as to guilt or innocence, and so it is essential to remain mindful to be discreet and otherwise comport oneself as a victim would…in order to be seen as a victim by the criminal justice system.
Markus Kaarma of Grant Creek was found guilty in December of deliberate homicide in the shooting death of a 17-year-old German exchange student, Diren Dede, and, in March, he was sentenced to 70 years for the crime. Kaarma shot and killed Dede after the latter entered Kaarma’s garage – according to Kaarma, his home had been previously burglarized by teenagers, and when he saw Dede rummaging through his garage that night, he fired four shotgun blasts, mortally wounding the high-schooler. As the investigation began in earnest, however, information emerged that portrayed Kaarma in a most unflattering light, and in a way hardly bespeaking of a typical random crime victim; records showed that Kaarma had been accumulating a bit of a reputation as local menace, with nearby residents citing a general pattern of aggressive behavior toward others. Particularly damaging to Kaarma was the revelation by a local hair stylist, whom he’d visited just a handful of days before the shooting, that he had expressed his frustration over being burglarized by teens, and that now he was “…just waiting to shoot some f—king kid.” According to the stylist’s affidavit, when she asked Kaarma to refrain from cursing in her establishment, he responded by declaring he could say “whatever the f—k” he pleased.
Beyond his unfortunate demeanor, another problem that Kaarma faced was the prosecution’s contention that Dede was not in the process of committing a forcible felony when he broke into the garage. Montana’s “Castle Doctrine” protects homeowners who kill intruders in self-defense, but they have to be able to demonstrate that they believed themselves to be at risk of serious injury or death from the acts of the intruder when the trigger was pulled; in other words, if you awaken one night to find someone rummaging through an old file cabinet in your garage and waste him with a shotgun, don’t expect to be covered by the Castle Doctrine.
An additional hitch in Kaarma’s defense was the fact that Dede was in his garage, and had not penetrated the internal residence. Although the garage is part of the home, and the Castle Doctrine would certainly apply if Kaarma could have shown he was the victim of a forcible felony in his garage, most people do tend to believe that there is a heightened expectation of privacy and safety within the actual residence, which Dede had not breached.
Although you generally have much greater freedom when it comes to the actions you take to defend yourself in your home, compared to the degree of freedom you have when on the street, you are still obligated to act prudently. As noted earlier, if you find someone going through old boxes or rummaging through a file cabinet in your garage, it’s not likely that many will agree such a person “deserves” to die for committing those kinds of acts. Was Dede murdered? There is much disagreement in the public forum on this. For my part, while I don’t think someone “deserves” to die for committing a simple residential break-in, particularly one that goes no further than the garage, if one happens to die in the course of committing a felony, it’s difficult to take the position that this person was murdered in the way we typically understand and apply that word. Nevertheless, those of us inclined to do what we can to keep our families safe within our own homes should pay heed to how actions like those taken by Kaarma may be viewed by others.
Kaarma made several, grievous errors in judgment here; most significantly, he killed a teenager who had broken into his garage, and who, in the process of doing so, had apparently shown no real signs of being a serious danger to Kaarma’s physical well-being. The lesson: you’re allowed to defend yourself, and are typically accorded even greater latitude when doing so against an intruder on your property, but if the facts at least strongly suggest to third-party observers that you were not in danger of serious injury or death, it is not going to be considered reasonable by those observers that the intruder ends up mortally wounded.
Beyond that most obvious screw-up, Kaarma’s next-biggest was his statement, made quite publicly, that he was going to shoot a kid. Even if he meant the statement as no more than an offhanded expression of frustration over his house having been burgled recently, it clearly came back to haunt him when he subsequently did, in fact, shoot a teenager. Again, the lesson: Keep your mouth shut. Although many agree that Kaarma’s decision to shoot Dede was out of bounds, regardless, even if the record had been different, and Dede had, say, physically attacked Kaarma in his own bedroom, the statement may well have still represented a not-insignificant obstacle for the defense (assuming the state chose to prosecute).
Lastly, Kaarma was apparently not a well-liked person in his community, and had established a history of belligerent, aggressive behavior among his neighbors. The last thing you want to be, if you have to kill another person in self-defense, is the guy (or gal) whom those around you fully expected to kill another. There’s nothing wrong with being firm and direct in the way you carry yourself, but it’s always a good idea to augment those characteristics with politeness and respect, as well. Not only is that a good way to be, anyway, but if you are confronted by an attacker and end up having to employ deadly force, your record as a good citizen can easily make the difference between continuing to enjoy your freedom…and spending decades (at least) behind bars.
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