Right, reason and murder

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The shooting death of Dan Fredenberg on Sept. 22 was tragic and avoidable. In many ways he was a sympathetic figure who was doing what lots of other men have done before him — trying to fight to save his marriage.

But he made the mistake of picking his fight in the wrong place — in the garage of his wife’s friend Brice Harper, who had armed himself with a pistol and shot Fredenberg rather than retreat.

The location of the shooting in an “occupied structure” meant that the incident was covered by Montana’s “castle doctrine” statute that considers use of deadly force “justified” when a person “reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent an assault upon the person or another then in the occupied structure.”

Fredenberg’s widow and other members of his family believe that it would be appropriate to charge Harper with deliberate homicide and let a jury decide the case.

We sympathize with them, just as we sympathize with the shooting victim himself, but County Attorney Ed Corrigan cannot charge someone with a crime simply because of sympathy. He has to do so based on the law, and this law — along with Montana’s “stand your ground” laws — provide an explicit statement for when use of force if “justified.” 

If the law says that the action is “justified,” then by definition it cannot also be considered criminal. Corrigan had no choice.

That however, should not be the end of the matter. There are several important lessons that must be learned from this incident, as the community has not been well-served by either the law or the legal process in this case.

First, Corrigan should have been more forthcoming with the press and the public about what his investigation needed to consider in determining whether charges were justified. 

The county attorney certainly need not always address the specifics of a case under investigation, but he can and should explain the law to a curious public. By failing to do so for nearly two weeks, Corrigan allowed the case to simmer and boil over with false expectations.

Secondly, and more importantly, the “castle doctrine” law should be re-examined by the state Legislature. While well-intentioned as a means to protect innocent homeowners defending themselves from assault, the law’s categorical assertion that force is justified based on what a person “reasonably believes” goes too far. 

That’s just too subjective, and forces the county attorney to use supernatural powers to divine the motive and motivation behind a shooter’s actions. Much better to shape the law so that the county attorney is instructed that circumstances involving self-defense in a home or business can be considered as exculpatory. In some cases, it would be better to let a jury of peers decide the credibility of the shooter in a court of law rather than just assume that he or she is without blame. 

As worded now, there is just too much opportunity for manipulation of the law by those who wish to do evil. For instance, it would be possible to taunt someone into attacking you in your own home for the sole purpose of taking that opportunity to “justifiably” kill your enemy. No one is saying that happened in this case, but as currently worded, the law provides a license to murder for those who are duplicitous.

Yes, the “castle doctrine” law sounds good when you first hear about it, but because of its life-and-death implications, the law is probably worthy of a second look.

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