Was it self-defense?
That question came into play Wednesday at a shooting scene near Lexington's Hamburg Pavilion — and in two hearings before the Kentucky Supreme Court in Louisville.
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In Lexington, police and prosecutors focused on the self-defense question as they investigated the shooting death of Brian Simpson, 28, a suspected home intruder who was killed by one of the home's residents. According to police, a couple who live in the apartment answered knocks at the door and were "rushed by" three people with handguns. One of the apartment occupants got a handgun and shot and killed one of the alleged intruders.
In Louisville, meanwhile, state Supreme Court justices grappled with the 2006 law in play in the Lexington case. That law broadly expanded the right to self-defense. The court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in two Louisville homicide cases that involved the law, commonly called the castle doctrine.
The cases were heard at the University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law.
Officer Ann Gutierrez, a Lexington police spokeswoman, said officers are conferring with prosecutors as they investigate whether the Lexington shooting was self-defense.
Senate Bill 38, commonly called the castle doctrine, was premised on a centuries-old concept: a man's home is his castle, and he has the right to defend it — with deadly force if necessary.
The law grants immunity to homeowners who kill a home intruder. It expands the right to use deadly force in self-defense to anywhere a person "has a right to be."
It also codified decades-old Kentucky case law that victims have no obligation to retreat before defending themselves.
But the law did not address several key questions when the facts are disputed: Who decides whether the alleged perpetrator was really a home intruder? Police? A judge? A jury?
And when and how is that supposed to happen?
The castle doctrine has come into play twice before. The first instance resulted in a plea deal being offered midtrial. In the second case, a grand jury last month declined to charge a man who shot and killed a drunken man beating on his front door.
The Kentucky Supreme Court did not make any rulings Wednesday. Supreme Court cases typically are not decided until months after oral arguments.
One of the key issues is the law's immunity provision. Immunity means that the home owner can't be sued and can't be prosecuted. In theory, the law is supposed to prevent police from even arresting the homeowner.
In the first Supreme Court case heard Wednesday, Wines vs. Commonwealth, a public defender argued that Phillip Wines is entitled to a new trial because jurors were not instructed in his 2006 trial that he had no obligation to retreat when he stabbed James Hamilton in a fight.
Elizabeth McMahon, of the the Louisville public defender office, also argued that Wines should have received a pre-trial hearing before a judge to determine whether he was entitled to immunity. A victory in such a hearing would have meant dismissal of his charges and no trial.
McMahon also argued that the castle doctrine should be applied retroactively.
The second case, Rodgers vs. Commonwealth, presented the court with the exact same questions. Frank Rodgers was convicted of manslaughter for the August 2004 shooting death of Dewhon McCafee at a barbecue at McCafee's house. Rodgers claimed that McCafee had pulled out a gun and he wrestled it away from him, then shot McCafee.
Prosecutors have a sharply different account of Hamilton's death in the Wines case. They say Wines was the aggressor. They think he attempted to lure Hamilton onto his property so he could kill him and claim self-defense. Wines claims that Hamilton attacked him.
NRA lobbies for law
The National Rifle Association has lobbied for castle doctrine laws across the country.
Kentucky's version overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate. A handful of lawmakers opposed it, saying it encourages people to shoot first and ask questions later.
Prosecutors have also opposed the law. They say the law's presumption that shooters are justified forces the courts to ignore the actual facts.
Prosecutors have talked about asking the legislature to repeal or amend it. But such an effort would be futile, said Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney David Stengel said.
"Talking to the legislature when the NRA is involved is like sticking your head out the window and yelling," said Stengel, a Democrat. "They are in lockstep with anything the NRA says."
One of the sponsors of the castle doctrine, state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, says the concept behind the law is simple.
"The intention was to send a very strong message to criminals that they should not rob people's houses," Thayer said.
Thayer added that the law was not intended to be retroactive. He also did not say how the legislature wanted the courts and police to apply the law.
That's something for the judiciary to decide, he said.
He said that, if the law is causing problems for the criminal justice system, the General Assembly would probably be open to clarifying it.
But "I have not been contacted by a single person saying the castle doctrine should be changed," Thayer said. Not "a citizen, a homeowner, a prosecutor, a defense lawyer. None of the above."
In Lexington Wednesday, police interviewed residents, searching for leads at the apartment complex where the shooting occurred.
Neighbors said they heard people yelling followed by at least three gunshots. The shooting was reported to police about 8:30 a.m.
A neighbor, who heard gunshots, flagged down officers and directed them to the apartment, Gutierrez said.
There were a lot of people at the scene when police arrived, she said. And officers were interviewing them Wednesday afternoon, trying to determine who was involved.
Investigators have not figured out why the intruders were at the apartment and whether they knew the residents.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Reginald Laron Jones, 24, was arrested on charges of first-degree burglary. Police say Jones, Simpson and a woman who has not been identified charged into a residence at Gleneagles Apartments at 2920 Polo Club Road.
Jones has an extensive criminal background and has been arrested for a number offenses, including several drug charges.
Police were still searching for the woman Wednesday night.
The shooter, who was interviewed and released, was not identified Wednesday.
Jeff Haddix said his 27-year-old daughter and her boyfriend live at the apartment where the shooting took place. He did not want to give his daughter's name, but he quietly waited for several hours at the crime scene with other relatives as the woman was interviewed by police.
Haddix said police told him that she was all right, "just a little shaken up." He said he was "terrified" when he arrived at the complex and saw the police cruisers.