“Why didn’t you run away?” It was this dreaded question, asked of victims of violent crime who chose to defend themselves and kill their attackers rather than turn tail and run to uncertain safety, that “stand your ground” laws were intended to address. We shouldn’t demand that ordinary people be Jason Bourne, constantly aware of the availability and potential risk of any exits to the rooms they’re in, even while under pressure, in order to claim self-defense. That’s why North Carolina passed its own “stand your ground” law in 2011: to prevent someone like Gyrell Lee, who defended himself and his cousin in good-faith reliance on his right to repel force with force, from being treated like a common criminal.
Lee had been celebrating New Year’s Eve at his cousin Jamiel Walker’s home. Several times throughout the night, known troublemaker Quinton Epps showed up with some friends and argued with Walker, becoming increasingly intoxicated and aggressive. At some point Lee, who had completed a concealed-carry class and was familiar with the legal rules surrounding gun use, retrieved his pistol from his car “just in case.”
Epps returned a final time, hurling verbal abuse at Walker in the street while Lee and others tried to de-escalate the situation. Suddenly, Walker punched Epps and Epps responded by grabbing the hood of Walker’s sweatshirt and shooting him in the stomach five times. Lee raised his own gun after the second shot, but didn’t fire out of fear of hitting his cousin. Once Walker was able to pull himself away—he would later be found dead from his wounds in a nearby yard—and Epps lifted his gun towards Lee, Lee fired eight times, killing Epps.
The judge at Lee’s murder trial instructed the jury on Lee’s general right of self-defense, but failed to inform them that a defendant accused of homicide has “no duty to retreat in a place where the defendant has a lawful right to be,” and is entitled to stand his ground. The judge also entirely failed to instruct the jury on Lee’s equal right to use deadly force in the defense of Walker. The jury, originally deadlocked, convicted Lee of second-degree murder.
The state court of appeals held—despite the fact that the prosecution relied heavily on the implication that Lee’s failure to retreat should be taken as evidence of his guilty mind—that those omissions did not rise to the level of “plain error” needed to overturn Lee’s conviction. The court reasoned that, because North Carolina’s no-duty-to-retreat law requires that the defendant be reasonable in the belief that deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm, and the jury had necessarily found Lee’s actions unreasonable when it voted to convict, the additional instruction was unnecessary. In doing so, it violated longstanding rules of statutory construction and rendered North Carolina’s law toothless.
The North Carolina Supreme Court took the case and Cato has now filed a brief in support of Lee, urging the court to overturn the lower court’s ruling. The right to bear arms for the defense of oneself and others, enshrined in both the federal and North Carolina constitutions, is a fundamental part of this nation’s republican experiment. Juries cannot be expected to rigorously uphold that right, however, if they aren’t properly informed by the courts of all relevant legal rights and duties.