‘Castle’ law in international controversy

By Jack Healy / New York Times News Service

MISSOULA, Mont. — Teenagers call it garage hopping. The goal was to sneak into an open garage, steal some beer or other items and slip away into the night. It was dumb and clearly illegal. It was not supposed to be deadly.

Around midnight on April 27, a 17-year-old exchange student from Germany named Diren Dede left the host home where he played Xbox and drained cans of Sprite to set off with a friend through his dark hillside neighborhood. They passed a home whose garage door hung partially open. Using a cellphone for light, Dede headed in.

Inside the house, motion sensors alerted Markus Kaarma, 29, to an intruder’s presence. Two recent burglaries had put Kaarma and his young family on edge, his lawyer said, and he grabbed a shotgun from the dining room and rushed outside. He aimed into the garage and, according to court documents, fired four blasts into the dark. Dede’s body crumpled to the floor.

While Kaarma has been charged with deliberate homicide, Dede’s death has set off an outcry an ocean away in Germany, exposing the cultural gulf between a European nation that tightly restricts firearms and a gun-loving Western state. In his defense, Kaarma is expected to turn to laws enacted in Montana five years ago that allow residents more legal protections in using lethal force to defend their homes.

German consular officials have called for justice. In an interview with a German news agency, Dede’s father criticized what he called an American cowboy culture as contributing to his son’s death. In Dede’s hometown, Hamburg, hundreds of his stunned relatives, friends and soccer teammates attended memorials, holding photos of Dede and unfurling a banner that read, “Our brother is dying while America is looking on.”

In Montana, which has one of the country’s highest rates of gun ownership, the killing has renewed criticism of the state’s “castle doctrine” laws, which allow residents wider latitude to use force to defend their homes.

Nearly every state has a law on the books giving residents the legal right to defend their homes, but Montana is among several that have gone further.

With backing from the National Rifle Association and the support of the state’s Democratic governor, Montana passed a stronger law in 2009 that placed the burden on prosecutors to rebut claims of self-defense.

Under the old laws, residents were justified in using force only if an assailant tried to enter their home in a “violent, riotous or tumultuous manner.” The new law eliminates that language and makes it clear that residents can use force if they reasonably believe it is necessary to prevent an assault on themselves or someone else in the home.

These laws are expected to play a crucial role in the criminal case that has been filed against Kaarma, who is out on bond and is to be arraigned Monday. His lawyer, Paul Ryan, says Kaarma feared for his family’s safety and panicked that night.

“He doesn’t know who’s there, what they’ve got, anything,” Ryan said. “He just didn’t know what was going on. Then he started to shoot.”

Castle laws

The shooting has also focused political attention on the castle laws. State Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill, D-Missoula, has proposed repealing the recent changes, saying that the rules have fostered a shoot-first culture in Montana.

“I’m a liberal legislator from Montana, and I have a handgun in my closet,” she said. “We are proud of our gun-owning tradition, but enough is enough. It’s like a license to kill. People are walking around exercising vigilante justice.”

Steve Daines, a Republican congressman running for the U.S. Senate, recently told a veteran’s group he supported the laws as they stand, a view echoed by gun enthusiasts. His opponent, Sen. John Walsh, a Democrat, supports them as well.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said, “I think it’s working just fine.”

In times of emergency in Montana, Marbut said, the police are often an hour’s drive away. “Self-defense is a natural right. It is part of the nature of being a free person that your life has value and you can protect that life. It’s just not going to work to change Montana to a Chicago-style culture.”

But here in Missoula, a liberal college town ringed by snow-capped peaks, Dede’s classmates and neighbors as well as other residents have expressed sympathy for him and tried to distance their community from the bloody events of that night. Scores of people attended a candlelight vigil for Dede, and ribbons bearing the red, gold and black of the German flag hang around nearly every mailbox post in his neighborhood, a winding subdivision where deer leap through backyards and children play driveway basketball at dusk.

“This is not us,” said Randy Smith, one of Dede’s host parents. “It’s not our neighborhood, it’s not our country. It’s not Montana.”

From Hamburg to Missoula

It was Dede’s first trip to the United States, and his teachers and friends, host family and soccer coach said he had seemed to thrive here. He played on two soccer teams and was so devoted to the sport that he insisted on attending a grueling team run up a mountainside on his first night in Missoula.

The son of Turkish immigrants, he often talked about straddling two cultures, and listened to German hip-hop and Turkish pop music on his phone. He took trips to Hawaii and Yellowstone and talked about wanting to return here to crisscross the country in a motor home.

But just up the road, two recent burglaries had made Kaarma and his partner, Janelle Pflager, feel like targets inside their home, Kaarma’s lawyer said. Someone had entered their open garage — the couple kept it open so they could duck out to smoke cigarettes — and stolen a wallet and credit cards, Ryan, the lawyer said. The break-ins rattled the couple, who are first-time parents with a 10-month-old.

“They’re feeling invaded,” Ryan said. “They thought they were being watched in their own neighborhood.”

Pflager bought motion sensors and a video camera to track the intruders should they return, and put a purse with some marked belongings inside, so that they could be traced to anyone who stole them. Ryan said the purse was sitting in the back of the garage and had not been placed there to lure anyone in.

A hairstylist named Felene Sherbondy told the police that Kaarma had come into the Great Clips salon three days before the shooting and talked about how he had been waiting up with his shotgun for three nights “to shoot some kid.” Sherbondy told the police that Kaarma was being “extremely vulgar and belligerent,” according to court documents.

Kaarma told the police that in the moments before Dede’s death, he heard the sound of metal touching metal as he stared into the pitch-black garage, and swept the gun across the width of the garage as he fired. Pflager told the police she heard a few yells of “Hey!” or “Wait!” from inside the garage, and then gunshots. It all happened in less than 10 seconds, the couple told the police.

They did not see who was in the garage until it was all over, Ryan said. The friend accompanying Dede that night, an exchange student from Ecuador, stayed outside the home.

Under investigation

The police are investigating whether Kaarma was under the influence of marijuana or other substances at the time of the shooting. Investigators found a glass jar of marijuana in his kitchen pantry, according to a search-warrant application filed in the case. A neighbor also told the police that Kaarma smoked marijuana in the garage, and that marijuana and marijuana pipes had been stolen in one of the earlier burglaries.

Investigators have tested Kaarma’s blood for drugs, but the results have not been released. Ryan, the lawyer, said that Kaarma had also been tested for alcohol use after the shooting, and that those results were negative.

Dede’s host parents, Smith and Kate Walker, who say they have never locked their doors and have never been burglarized, have spent the last week grieving for a 17-year-old who had begun to feel like a family member. They said they could not fathom why anyone would feel compelled to open fire.

“Whatever happened to turning the lights on and yelling, ‘Hey kids, go home’?” Smith said.

Walker added, “Or closing the garage door?”