Using Deadly Force

If you haven’t been following the story of the Perry County burglar who was shot and killed by an employee, here’s the story so far:

  1. Amy Turner and Jeffery Harless entered a beer distributor when they weren’t supposed to be there.
  2. The alarm sounded
  3. The owner responded to the alarm and confronted Harless
  4. Harless charged the owner with something held over his head (police later found a hammer)
  5. The owner shot and killed Harless
  6. Harless is now dead and Turner is in custody as an accomplice

There’s been a lot of furious arguing in the always troll-tastic PennLive comment section.  Some people argue that the owner had no right to shoot the intruder.  They say he should have waited for the police to respond.  Others argue that the owner was fully correct because, as revealed in today’s story, Harless charged the owner holding something over his head.  And the remaining 95% of the comments are along the lines of “LOL U SUCK” and “BUSH RULES”.

I am not a lawyer, but our gun laws are very easy to understand.  The Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act says the following about the use of deadly force:

The use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.

Put very simply, the law states that you can use deadly force to protect yourself or someone in your care against an imminent threat of death, severe bodily harm, kidnapping, or sexual assault.  There are exceptions, of course:

The use of force is not justifiable under this section if … the actor, with the intent of causing death or serious bodily injury, provoked the use of force against himself in the same encounter; or … the actor knows that he can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety by retreating … except that … the actor is not obliged to retreat from his dwelling or place of work, unless he was the initial aggressor or is assailed in his place of work by another person whose place of work the actor knows it to be.

That’s a bit wordy, but not difficult to understand.  You may NOT use deadly force if you provoked the situation.  For example, if you stab someone walking down Third Street and they retaliate by drawing their gun, you can’t pull out your gun and shoot them claiming self-defense.

Unfortunately, this observation is going to disappoint about 33% of the PennLive crowd.

You may NOT use deadly force if you can get away SAFELY.  If you’re walking late at night at 13th and Derry and someone from a block away pulls out a gun and shoots in your direction, you run.  You don’t kneel down and return fire.

Unfortunately, this observation will disappoint another 33% of the PennLive crowd.

However, there’s an exception to this rule:  If the incident happens in your home, you have no duty to retreat — with exceptions made for things like police officers and repo men.

There’s another exception to the “get away safely” clause, and this one is directly relevant to the story at hand.  If the incident happens in your place of work, and the other party does not also work there, you have no duty to retreat.  But this exception has its own exception, and that is that you must not be the one who provoked the situation.

Let’s modify the story slightly and see what happens.  The owner of the beer distributor is doing a late-night inventory after closing time.  He looks up and sees Harless coming at him with a hammer over his head.  The owner draws his handgun and shoots once, killing Harless.  For the sake of clarity, assume there are no mitigating factors.  In this case, it would appear to me that the owner would be completely justified in his use of deadly force.

But this story isn’t exactly what happened.

The owner received a call (presumably from his alarm company) that his burglar alarm was going off.  He went to the store looking for any sign of trouble.  He found it.  The video depicts both Harless and the owner being startled upon seeing each other.  The video then depicts Harless raising something (presumably the hammer that was later found at the scene) over his head and charging the owner.  The owner fired his handgun once, striking Harless in the chest and killing him.

There are two issues here.  First, did the owner “provoke” the situation by going to the store?  I know if my burglar alarm goes off while I’m away, I’m going to head home and wait — at a distance — for the police to arrive.  I’m sure my 40SW would give a burglar something to think about, but I’m not going to voluntarily put myself in the position of having to make that decision.  And since I’m not willing to put myself in that position over my home, I’m sure as hell not going to put myself in that position over a store — that’s what insurance is for.

Second, even if the owner is cleared of criminal charges, Harless’s family may pursue civil action against the owner.  Unfortunately, I think it would be very easy to convince a jury that Harless would still be alive if the owner had remained at home.  While logic dictates that Harless would be alive if Harless had also chosen to stay home, juries don’t always work that way.  A lawyer will undoubtedly paint a picture of Harless as a “troubled young man” whose life might have been changed by this “one incident”, but has now been “snuffed out” by “some renegade vigilante who was too impatient to for the police to arrive”.

Personally?  I don’t think the owner should face criminal charges.  I think he’s an idiot for going to the store, and I think he’s extremely lucky that Harless didn’t have a gun instead.  I also think the ultimate responsibility here lies with Harless.  It was Harless’s decision to burglarize the store that set this entire chain of events in motion.  And while I don’t have the video surveillance to prove as much, I’m willing to bet my next paycheck that nobody held a gun to Harless’s head and forced him to burglarize the store.

But it’s not for me to decide.  District Attorney Charles Chenot has that ball in his court.  Our criminal justice system is not always perfect, but it demands that all available facts of a matter be considered before a decision is rendered.  Unfortunately, this observation will disappoint another 33% of the PennLive crowd.

That leaves 1% remaining.

That 1% can be identified by things like “using one punctuation mark after each sentence”, “using sentences”, “not using ALL CAPS”, and “not posting like some 12-year-old who just got his first AOL account”.  The observations I’ve made above have already been brought up in the comments, but they’re usually buried by flamewars involving people blaming Obama for the burglary and people blaming Thompson for the burglary.

I eagerly await the DA’s decision.  And I’m curious to know how many lawyers have already contacted Harless’s family.

2 thoughts on “Using Deadly Force”

  1. [quote]And I’m curious to know how many lawyers have already contacted Harless’s family.[/quote]

    Most likely an amount higher than the previously mentioned 99% will ever be capable of counting to.

  2. I agree 100% with your comments; I don’t think the owner should face charges. I think he was not entirely intelligent by going to the store.

    However, the trump card here is the idiot (criminal) who robbed the store. In a way, I wish this would happen more often to criminals. I regret the loss of life but in the end, if you decide to rob someone you need to realize it may be the last thing you do.

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