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Double-Barrel Standard: Self-Defense in Missouri

Meramec River Most of those who come to this blog will have already read about James Crocker who shot a man in the face for trespassing — maybe — on his property. The property in question was along the Meramec River and the man who was shot was one of the hordes that evidently go "floating" on said river. Floating seems to often involve drinking and partying on gravel bars that abut the property of riverside residents.

The details of this shooting seem unsavory from just about any point of view. The shooter wanted the floaters to know just what his armed status meant, backing up his orders to be gone from his property with the statement that "I have the power here. I have the power." And he wasn't just whistling Dixie. When push came to shove he, in his own words, he "just shot the one closest to me" — a man who seems, by all accounts, to have been trying to defuse the confrontation.

Neither, however, do the floaters come off much better. They were by some accounts the worse for alcohol and may or may not have been willfully trespassing — it seems that the law governing property rights along the river can be a bit "murky" — and they had, nevertheless, signed an agreement with the float outfitter that they would respect the wishes of riverside residents if a conflict arose.

That the situation would have never come to such a dire end if Mr. Crocker were not armed is indisputable. Nobody can deny that a man is dead who didn't need to die. However, there has been little discussion of the role that arming citizens played in his death; everyone seems to be more than willing to grant that, depending on how property law is interpreted in this case, Mr. Crocker may have been within his rights to shoot according to Missouri's Castle law.

In 1994, Shelley Henrickson shot her husband after years of violent physical abuse. She joined a number of other women who had finally snapped and murdered abusive spouses, women like Lynda Branch, who in 1986, shot her husband after eleven years of abuse so horrific that it is difficult to read the account of her experiences.

During their trials, none of these women were allowed to testify about the abuse they suffered. Even when attitudes about victims of domestic abuse began to change, parole boards were reluctant to release them. Lynda Branch, for example, attempted a number of appeals on the basis that the judge and jury were not allowed to see evidence of the abuse she endured, all of which were denied. The experiences of most of the other women were similar.

It took a group of feminist lawyers, the Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition, to bring about change. As a result of their work, the legislature passed a law in 2007 permitting the Board of Probation and Parole to release who women who had not been permitted to use a battered spouse defense. The Board, however was so reluctant to act that the Coalition had to go to court to force the Board to act, eventually winning the release of eleven women, including Shelley Henrickson and Lynda Branch.

What's this got to do with James Crocker? Not much, admittedly, apart from what seems, at least at this early date, to be the contrasting attitudes surrounding the crimes.

When authorities tried to explain why they were unwilling to revisit the crimes of the domestic abuse victims described above, they consistently referenced the fact that the women had committed cold-blooded murder as an inescapable and, by implication, an unforgivable fact. Actually, there are still some folks who are ticked off abut their final release after years of prison (read, for instance, this unhinged diatribe at your own risk).

Discussions of Crocker's crime, however, seem to hinge on whether or not he had a claim to the gravel bar where the floaters came ashore, or just how Missouri's Castle Law should be interpreted. There's also a little uneasy hemming and hawing about gun violence and Castle Laws, but nothing too shrill.

Kill in cold blood because you live in fear of an abusive husband and rot in jail for years. Life is sacred, after all. Kill in cold blood because you're ticked off about jackasses abusing your property, and Missouri's Castle Law could, if you're lucky, very well see you through. Life may be sacred, but just might come in second to property rights.

Admittedly, there are lots of complex nuances in both situations, and it is still unclear what will happen with Mr. Crocker. Comparing the two types of events is like comparing apples and oranges, you might say. But I also know that apples and oranges are both fruit and we shouldn't forget it.

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