A German exchange student was shot to death in a Montana garage on Sunday, again raising questions about the touchy legal issue of self-defense.
Self-defense became a fiercely debated political issue after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder last year in the 2012 shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. Zimmerman argued he fired in self-defense, while opponents blamed Florida’s stand-your-ground law for his acquittal.
Since then, there have been other cases, including a high-profile shooting in Michigan and another Florida case involving a man who was convicted of shooting a teenager to death in a dispute over loud music.
The Montana case involves Markus Hendrick Kaarma, 29, of Missoula, who is free on $30,000 bond. He is charged with shooting to death Diren Dede, a 17-year-old exchange student from Hamburg, Germany, who had illegally entered Kaarma’s garage. If convicted, Kaarma could face up to life in prison. The minimum term would be 10 years.
Prosecutors maintain that Kaarma, who had been burglarized twice in the past two weeks, told an employee of a hair salon that he was staying up at night, waiting to shoot the perpetrator. He and his wife, Janelle Pflager, installed motion sensors and a video monitor in the garage. They left the door open and left a purse inside allegedly to attract a burglar.
The defense, however, insists that Kaarma acted within the scope of the state’s self-defense laws. Montana, like most states, has a form of the so-called “castle doctrine,” which generally means a person has a right to use deadly force if there is a reasonable belief that the home or household is in danger.
“This appears to be justified self-defense, a straightforward case of self-defense and a justifiable use of force,’ Kaarma’s lawyer, Paul Ryan, told the Los Angeles Times. “Truly, this is your home, this is your domain. You shouldn’t have to flee that.”
Ryan denied the purse could even be seen from outside the garage and said he had yet to see the prosecution's material about the hair salon employee’s statement to police.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Ryan, adding that Kaarma “was not happy about the shooting or proud of it.”
According to the police affidavit, the incident took place sometime Sunday night. Pflager and Kaarma heard a sensor alert indicating that someone was in the garage, looked at the video monitor and saw a male there. Kaarma allegedly took his shotgun and went to the front of the garage. Pflager followed.
Kaarma told police that he thought he was going to die, and that he assumed the intruder had a knife or a tool from the garage, but he couldn't be sure because it was dark and he couldn't see inside. Kaarma added that he thought the intruder would try to get out of the garage, and that he didn't want him to get away. He stated that police can't catch burglars in the act, according to media reports.
Kaarma eventually fired four shots within seconds. Police responded in about 12 minutes and took Dede to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A news release from Missoula County Public Schools said Dede came to Montana in August and was enrolled as a junior at Big Sky High School. School district spokeswoman Hatton Littman told reporters that Dede played soccer for both the high school boys' team and a local men's club soccer team.
“The staff, the students, the families are shocked,” Littman told the Associated Press. “We all feel this is a great tragedy. I think people are just sitting with their grief right now.”
Another young man was involved but apparently never entered the garage and fled before police arrived. That person, who may have been questioned by police, has not been charged, Ryan said.
Kaarma’s next court date is a preliminary hearing scheduled for May 12, Ryan said.