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Will ‘stand your ground’ law protect suspects in the Kansas City Chiefs rally shooting?


By Bill Lukitsch Updated March 08, 2024 A controversial Missouri law that affords citizens broad rights to use deadly force when threatened in public could play a support role for suspects faced with criminal charges in the mass shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs rally. More than two dozen people were shot, including a bystander fatally struck, when a dispute broke out at the tail end of the Feb. 14 Super Bowl victory celebration outside Union Station. Roughly half of those with gunshot wounds were under 16, and at least 18 more people were hurt in a resulting stampede toward safety. Four people are criminally charged in connection to the shooting, including two juveniles. Being tried as adults are 23-year-old Lyndell Mays and 18-year-old Dominic Miller, both of whom were also shot in a gunfight that sent bullets into the crowd. Little is known of the allegations against the two juveniles because records are sealed in family court, but the probable cause affidavits drafted by police for Mays and Miller both contain elements of self-defense claims. They’ve both been charged with second-degree felony murder, a section of criminal law that allows prosecutors to bring a murder charge when an underlying felony crime leads to a death. They also face unlawful weapon use and armed criminal action. Neither defense lawyer responded to The Star’s interview requests as of Thursday. Legal experts, though, believe the self-defense law will likely come up as the court process moves forward. Under Missouri law, use of deadly force is allowed to protect oneself or others when a person “reasonably” fears imminent danger. Its language limits its protections if a person is deemed an “initial aggressor” in confrontations. “Certainly, in this case, from what I do know about it, I anticipate that self defense in some form is going to be raised by one or more of the defendants,” John Picerno, a longtime Kansas City criminal defense attorney, said during a recent interview with The Star. And however those claims fan out in court, the Chiefs rally shooting has for now brought into sharper focus some of the finer points of Missouri’s self-defense law — especially among those who’ve long raised concerns about its effects on public safety. Critics include law professors, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys who point to its loose language as being at least partially responsible for what they describe as a modern-day Missouri with more guns and fewer rules than the Wild West. Stephen Sokoloff, general counsel for the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said many prosecutors represented in its membership have long objected to the self-defense law, saying the current language potentially allows for firearms to be used in “questionable situations” without accountability. “This is a perfect example of exactly what we said we were concerned about happening,” Sokoloff said. ‘Unprecedented’ protections For centuries, self-defense was governed by court decisions — known as common law — where the use of deadly force as a means of self-defense was limited to absolute necessity, said Sean O’Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri- Kansas City. Established arguments included what’s known as the Castle Doctrine, under which a person faced no requirement to retreat from a deadly threat in their home. But in recent years, as stand your ground was first put in place and further expanded in 2016, those rights broadened beyond an individual’s home to public spaces and more situations. “What the stand your ground doctrine does is take away that duty to retreat in a public place. That’s unprecedented,” O’Brien said. “And Missouri is out of line with most of the United States, and virtually all of the civilized world on this issue.” When applied to real-life scenarios, especially when guns are involved, the courts are tasked to weigh many factors when evaluating a criminal defendant’s self-defense claim. Who started it? Who actually shot first? Was there a legitimate threat? Who was the target? ‘No one really knows the facts’ Probable cause affidavits prepared by Kansas City police detectives offer the most detailed glimpse available of the investigation into the Feb. 14 shooting so far. Detectives used surveillance video, forensic evidence collected from the scene, and the statements of witnesses and the suspects to piece together a narrative where a fight between two groups erupted in gunfire. On one side of the scuffle was Mays, the affidavits say, who was seen getting into a verbal argument with a group standing several feet away near Pershing and Kessler roads. A witness told police the fight was about “why they were staring at each other.” Mays allegedly chased one person as others from the opposing group drew guns and started firing. Miller was also seen running and shooting while between two people in the crowd, the affidavits say. Police said guns were found near both the wounded suspects. Ballistics matched the bullet that killed Lisa Lopez-Galvan, a 43-year-old Johnson County mother of two and popular disc jockey, to the one possessed by Miller, authorities allege. Detectives took individual statements from Mays and Miller as they were being treated in the hospital for gunshot wounds. Police say Mays, whose family has spoken publicly in his defense, admitted to drawing and firing first, but did so after hearing what he perceived as a threat against himself and another rally attendee. His sister and father say police questioned him while he was under the influence of prescribed opioids. Miller allegedly said he shot back at a man with dreadlocks who was holding a gun and firing at him. Dan Ross, a Kansas City criminal defense attorney, said the state’s law can offer a “formidable” defense that depends “on who saw what, and how that is portrayed to a jury at the end of the day.” He also said the affidavits are part of the initial charging documents that come at the very beginning of a criminal case, and they will not tell the final story. “No one really knows the facts,” Ross said. “The probable cause is very preliminary, (it) is never evidence in a case. And it’s often as the case develops, in particular, these cases, the information and or probable cause, may be shown to be not completely accurate.” It’ll be up to a judge to decide whether a defendant has injected the self-defense issue, he said. Challenges for law enforcement The threshold for successfully bringing a self-defense claim in a Missouri court is low. Once evidence is introduced that could lead a jury to believe the defendant acted in self-defense, O’Brien said, the burden of proof shifts to prosecutors. It’s then up to the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the criminal defendant did not act in self-defense. Another layer: A criminal defendant who claims self-defense only has to have a reasonable belief that the person presents an imminent threat. “They don’t have to be right,” O’Brien said. “They just have to have a reasonable belief.” Things can become more complex if someone who starts the fight backs off in the middle of it — effectively tapping out. Then, the other person engaged would be considered the initial aggressor if the fight continues. “There’s so many layers to the self defense issue that it is a challenge for prosecutors to overcome, and the stand your ground issue, by taking away that retreat requirement, makes it doubly difficult,” O’Brien said. ‘Not one of us asked for that’ When the latest version of stand your ground was proposed in 2016, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which represents the interests of elected prosecutors across the state on both sides of the political aisle, tried to convince lawmakers against its passage. Under the current language of the statute, Sokoloff, of the prosecuting attorneys association, said many situations present a “significant question” of whether a person involved in a deadly dispute can be convicted for killing and injuring people, including bystanders. “If somebody was afraid that they might get punched, technically, under the language of this statute, that person may be privileged in using deadly force, which is an absurd result, and makes the streets a lot more dangerous,” he said. Many prosecutors across the state — some quieter than others — have for years held similar concerns. Among the most outspoken is Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who has pointed to the confluence of lax gun laws and expanded self-defense as contributing to Kansas City’s high homicide rate, which reached a new record in 2023. Baker declined to discuss details of or comment on the Chiefs rally shooting during a Wednesday interview with The Star, as the case is ongoing. But she condemned a “ridiculous political calculus” centered in Jefferson City where she has been told there is “zero chance” of putting any restrictions on gun carrying or self-defense. “If you go back and look at every expansion of self-defense in the state of Missouri in the last 20 years, you will not find a prosecutor, an elected prosecutor, asking for it. Not one of us asked for that. It was all bred through politics.” And she says lawmakers are too out of step to propose laws most Missourians would agree with. Efforts to tighten the law failed last year. And lawmakers in the Republican-dominated statehouse have shown little appetite for tighter restrictions on guns or self-defense. The House shelved two gun-related expansion measures this year after the parade shooting. Meanwhile, the Senate cleared a separate bill in committee Tuesday that would shield shooters from civil liability if they are found to have acted in line with stand your ground. “When you romanticize guns the way we have, they’re all good guys with guns until the moment that the gun is drawn and the trigger is pulled,” Baker said. “And then we have to sort out which ones become bad guys.” Not the first time The Kansas City Chiefs rally shooting is only the latest high-profile case to raise questions over the state’s self-defense law. Over the summer, another produced national headlines when teenager Ralph Yarl was shot while ringing the wrong doorbell at night in Kansas City’s Northland. He mistakenly went to the wrong house while trying to pick up his younger siblings. Homeowner Andrew Lester, 84, was accused of first-degree assault in Clay County Circuit Court a few days later as protests were mounting in Kansas City. In announcing the charges, Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson explained why his office found Missouri’s self-defense law did not shield Lester from criminal liability. The case ignited outrage and allegations of a racist hate crime as Yarl, who is a Black, was nearly killed by Lester, who is white, for a minor mixup — and Lester was initially released without charges. Lester has claimed in court that he acted in self-defense when a stranger appeared on his doorstep and appeared to be breaking in. Other cases of local concern have been captured less attention nationally. In February 2021, two men were killed on the side of the road in Platte County over a dispute centered on $200-worth of firewood. Kalob Lawson, 34, and Jonathan Lutz, 44, were both shot to death by a then-22-year-old who alleged the pair had short-changed his father. It happened after Lawson allegedly first pointed a gun. The shooter drove home and surrendered to police the following day. Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd brought the case to a grand jury, which declined to file a charge in either killing. A key component: The grand jury was not allowed to consider whether the shooter could have — or should have — retreated because of Missouri’s self-defense law. “It’s a tragic situation,” Zahnd told The Star, adding: “I think there are many situations where a jury might want to consider whether somebody could retreat from a situation rather than pulling out a weapon. And under the law, in many situations, a jury is not going to be asked to consider that.” Zahnd said he is duty-bound by the oath of his office to follow the law the way it is written. And it’s up to citizens to “decide whether they want to live in a state where a person can simply pull out a gun and shoot when feeling threatened, or whether they would like that person to consider retreating from that situation when possible.” “That’s a policy decision that legislators and not prosecutors get to make,” Zahnd said. “And ultimately, through elections, Missouri’s voters need to decide what sort of state they live in.” This story was originally published