Murder trials that have taken place this year in Warren and Logan counties, one set to begin next month in Simpson County and a 2003 murder case set to be retried later in Edmonson County involve a common thread.
Though different circumstances surround the slayings committed in each incident, the defendants in all four cases have asserted they acted in self-defense when their actions caused another person’s death.
The men charged in each incident have relied on Kentucky’s version of a so-called “stand your ground” law that is also in effect in many other states.
One defendant, Stephan Thomas, was acquitted of murder and tampering with physical evidence at a trial this year in Warren Circuit Court.
The jury in that case determined Thomas acted in self-defense when he fatally stabbed Tyrese Huffman during a 2012 confrontation in the parking lot of a Bowling Green apartment complex.
Thomas’ attorney, John Stewart of Adams, Tenn., said the facts of the case, viewed through the prism of Kentucky’s self-defense law, vindicated his client.
In the days leading up to the homicide, Thomas and Dewayne “D.J.” Graves had hostile interactions with each other, and Huffman was one of a group of people who traveled with Graves to meet Thomas during the incident that resulted in the stabbing, according to trial testimony.
“I think many times, the jurors follow the facts,” Stewart said. “As long as you’re clear on the facts, if you can find your facts that your client did not create, you want to make sure (self-defense) is not just a figment of your client’s imagination and that’s why I think the jury found (Thomas) not guilty.”
Under the state’s self-defense law, a defendant can justifiably use deadly force against another person when the defendant believes such force is necessary to protect himself against death, serious physical injury, kidnapping, forcible sexual intercourse or a felony involving the use of force.
A defendant can also present evidence of prior acts of domestic violence and abuse by the person against whom he or she used deadly force.
Kentuckians have always had the right to self-defense, but Kentucky was one of several states in the previous decade to rewrite its self-defense law to eliminate the duty to retreat from confrontations.
In fact, a section of the statute used in self-defense cases states directly that a person does not have a duty to retreat before the use of deadly force.
“A defendant has to believe that he or she is using deadly force in order to protect themselves and others from deadly force,” said Tim Coleman, commonwealth’s attorney for the 38th Judicial Circuit, which covers Butler, Edmonson, Ohio and Hancock counties. “You can only match the type of force necessary to accomplish that goal, and that gets kind of tricky at times.”
In states where the stand your ground provision is in effect, the law is also sometimes referred to as the castle doctrine, referencing the phrase “a man’s home is his castle” and codifying the sense that a defendant should not have to retreat any further than his or her own home before using deadly force.
From a prosecutorial standpoint, self-defense cases pose challenges.
Coleman is prosecuting a case in Edmonson County against Allen Hatcher, who is accused of murder in the 2003 shooting death of Edward Tankersley.
Hatcher, who claims to have acted in self-defense, was found guilty of murder and other offenses in 2005 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but the Kentucky Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2010 based on ineffective representation and ordered a new trial.
“In a lot of self-defense cases, your best witness is deceased,” Coleman said. “The person who can say the other side of the story isn’t there to testify. ... At the end of the day, it’s the commonwealth’s burden to prove there was no self-defense, and overcoming our burden of proof can be difficult under certain circumstances.”
The expansion of self-defense laws to incorporate “stand your ground” language has received scrutiny in the last couple of years due in large part to the case in Florida of George Zimmerman, who shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012.
While Zimmerman did not invoke the :stand your ground” portion of the Florida law, he maintained that he acted in self-defense. Florida was also the first of a wave of states beginning in 2005 to expand its self-defense laws.
The self-defense law currently on the books in Kentucky was most recently amended in 2006 to eliminate the duty to retreat.
“I think the law on the books has put into writing what has always been the sort of common sense of mankind in that you do have the right to defend yourself,” Bowling Green attorney Alan Simpson said.
Simpson represented Tommy Brown, a one-time Warren County court security officer who fatally shot Brandon Bradshaw in a road-rage incident last year.
A grand jury declined to charge Brown with a crime, and a police investigation determined that Bradshaw had taken out a handgun prior to being shot.
“I don’t think (the law) is too broad,” Simpson said. “If you are in fear that you are going to be killed or seriously injured, you have the right to take care of business, so to speak. You have to do so cautiously and it has to be truly justified or else there will be ramifications.
“We don’t want it to be the Wild West, but by the same token, if you’re not the person that’s causing the threat and you reasonably believe you’re going to get killed or maimed in some way, you don’t have to stand there and take it.”
A 2012 study by two Texas A&M University economists analyzed 21 states that enacted “stand your ground” self-defense laws and concluded that expansions to the law did not deter violent crime such as robbery, burglary or aggravated assault and led to an 8 percent increase in reported homicides – or an additional 600 homicides per year in the states where the expanded laws apply.
“These findings provide evidence that lowering the expected cost of lethal force causes there to be more of it,” wrote the economists, Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra in the Journal of Human Resources.
Bowling Green attorney Brad Coffman, a criminal defense lawyer who represented Thomas at the beginning of his murder case, said that, while he will rely on the state self-defense law when it serves the interest of his clients, the law itself can encourage too much use of deadly force.
“It ought to be an absolute last resort to ever hurt anybody else,” Coffman said. “I think it basically allows individuals to use deadly force as a first resort instead of a last resort. ... It sort of encourages people to go out looking for trouble.”
Kentucky’s self-defense law is unique in that a judge can dismiss an indictment against a defendant charged with a violent crime prior to trial if the judge finds probable cause that the person acted in self-defense and reasonable belief existed that the person was in imminent danger of serious injury or death.
Coleman said this wrinkle in the state law can create more ambiguity in interpreting and applying the law to certain cases.
“That has caused some issues of concern of how much in the way of facts do you have to have just to get to a jury,” Coleman said. “It’s a tough area of the law. When does immunity from prosecution come into play, and how do you determine where that line is?”
When cases are presented to a grand jury, prosecutors can talk with members of the grand jury about how the law applies in cases where the issue of self-defense comes into play.
Coleman said he is able to get a feel from people in the grand jury process as to what they know about the law and how it may apply.
“There are those who feel you ought to protect yourself no matter what and others feel you’ve got to be more circumspect,” Coleman said.
When such cases go before a jury, defense attorneys often focus on placing jurors in the situation in which their clients found themselves when they used deadly force.
“What I always try to do is get the jurors to be in my clients’ shoes, where you have to make a split-second decision,” Stewart said.