Police in Montgomery County, Maryland are investigating a new “Castle Doctrine” case after Harry Trueman Powell, 34, was shot and killed by a homeowner. Powell allegedly had been sleeping in the basement of the home for some time — a home that had its own firing range. Since there is no report that Powell was armed, the case is likely to raise Maryland’s Castle Doctrine defense.

The owner says that he confronted Powell outside of the house around 9 am and Powell allegedly came into the kitchen and lunged at him. He then shot and killed him.  The homeowner was reportedly on the phone with 911 when the incident occurred.  Powell had a criminal record including domestic abuse.

We have previously discussed Castle Doctrine laws or “make my day” laws, including other cases involving garage shootings or shootings off the property of the homeowner.  This includes the Montana case of Brice Harper, 24, gunned down Dan Fredenberg, 40, in his garage. Fredenberg, 40, was coming over to confront Harper about having an affair with his wife, Heather Fredenberg. Harper cut the encounter short by shooting him dead and a prosecutor declared that the shooting cannot be prosecuted given the state’s Castle doctrine or “Make My Day” law.

The common law has long offered ample protections even for reasonable mistakes. These laws are based on an urban legend that people are routinely prosecuted for defending their homes from intruders. The laws have produced perverse results as in the controversial case of Tom Horn in Texas. Yet, the popularity of these laws have spawned “Make My Day Better” laws that extend the privilege of lethal force to businesses and cars.

In this case, there could be a conventional self-defense claim. Indeed, the common law allowed people to “stand their ground” under a rule ironically called in this case “the True man Doctrine.” (Some states later adopted a duty to retreat but others codified the right to self-defense with Stand Your Ground laws).

The Castle Doctrine laws are designed to effectively answer the question under the common law and establish that any intruder can be treated as a threat to life — warranting the use of lethal force.

I do not believe that Maryland has a specific Castle Doctrine statute. It is rather a common law doctrine supported by case decisions and a standard jury instruction. There is a law requiring retreat in self-defense outside of the home. However, the standard “castle doctrine” instruction makes clear “that a person in his own home has no duty to retreat before using reasonable force against his attacker.” The rule is

[p]remised on the common law principle that a man’s home is his castle, indeed his ultimate sanctuary, [and] permits a person who is without fault and is attacked within his dwelling or its curtilage, to stand his ground and defend himself, even if retreat could be safely accomplished.

Gainer v. State, 40 Md. App. 382, 388, 391 A.2d 856 (1978)  

That rule offers ample protection for a homeowner, particularly if police and prosecutors believe that he fired after the deceased lunged at him.

Outside of the home, there is a duty to retreat in Maryland. However, the homeowner in this case did say that he effectively retreated into his home. Once within the home, he is afforded added protections.

Thus in both criminal and civil proceedings, this homeowner is likely to have ample defenses.

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