What if they met an armed man threatening a waiter at a restaurant? What if five men broke into their home while they were outside? What if a man offended them on their own property? Did the law allow them to stand their ground and use physical deadly force?
At one point Thursday night, Forrest Marshall, a Calhoun County assistant district attorney who presented an informal class on gun laws at the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, had to scratch his head at some of the questions.
“Boy,” he said, with a laugh. “‘What if’ is a hard thing to deal with.”
The millions of ‘what if’ scenarios involving guns have become a hot topic throughout the nation after an incident in Florida in February in which an unarmed 17-year-old was shot to death in a suburban Orlando neighborhood by a man claiming self-defense.
The Trayvon Martin case has sparked debate about “stand your ground” gun laws like the one in place in Florida.
What if a similar situation happened in Alabama?
In 2006, legislation from former Alabama state Sen. Larry Means changed self-defense laws, allowing a person “the right to stand his or her ground” as opposed to having to flee a potentially life-threatening situation.
“There is no duty to retreat,” Marshall said about Alabama’s laws. “It used to be, prior to 2006, you had to retreat to safety, but that’s changed now.”
And while they don’t call it a “stand your ground” law, Alabama is one of 20 states with laws similar to Florida’s that allow someone to use deadly force in self-defense without the provision of having to first attempt to retreat from the situation.
In a lot of cases, it’s hard to tell if a homicide was in self-defense, said Calhoun County Chief Deputy Matthew Wade, but in every scenario, the incident is fully investigated and usually goes to a grand jury.
That is perhaps another thorny issue, considering the law protects someone from prosecution in all cases of self-defense.
Wade said he didn’t know enough details about the Florida case to say whether it was handled correctly, but said local cases would be handled similarly with the shooter being taken into custody. But, he said, an actual arrest would depend on the investigation.
“Just because you don’t make an arrest, it doesn’t mean you’re not carrying out justice. Every case is different,” Wade said. “Ultimately, it’s up to a jury or a judge.”
But local agencies in Calhoun County said since the law changed, they haven’t had to deal with it, and in most cases, they wouldn’t be involved in the final decision.
“It really doesn’t come up,” said Anniston police Chief Layton McGrady, who said that in self-defense cases, it’s usually up to a grand jury to decide if the act was a homicide.
Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge said it’s been more than 15 years since a case of self-defense homicide occurred in the city, but standard procedure calls for it to be investigated like any other homicide.
“We would look at all the evidence and see if it would go either way,” Partridge said. “It would probably end up going to the grand jury.”
Wade said employing common sense is the best way to avoid situations in which one might have to take the drastic step of killing someone in self-defense. The goal is not to be an aggressor in any situation.
“We say it’s not your job to confront anyone,” Wade said. “Be a good witness, get tag numbers, get a good description.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star