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Is the 'Castle Doctrine' a License to Kill? Montana Man Kills Girlfriend's Unarmed Husband and Gets Off

Months after the Travyon Martin killing shed light on so-called “stand your ground” laws, disturbing cases in Montana and South Carolina involving the statute continue to attract attention.
 
 
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Months after the Travyon Martin killing shed light on so-called “stand your ground” laws, disturbing cases involving the statute continue to attract attention. The latest is the case of a Montana man who was shot and killed in the garage of another man, which the New York Times reports on today. The man who fired the weapon will not be prosecuted.

Dan Fredenberg was a 40-year-old man locked in a struggling marriage. He knew that his much younger wife, 22-year-old Heather Fredenberg, was seeing another man named Brice Harper. Fredenberg’s marriage was falling apart, and he knew it.

So Fredenberg drank a little alcohol, and went to confront Harper. While Fredenberg was unarmed, Harper wasn’t, and he fired and struck Fredenberg three times. Fredenberg was dead the next morning.

But the New York Times reports that “Flathead County attorney decided not to prosecute, saying that Montana’s ‘castle doctrine’ law, which maintains that a man’s home is his castle, protected Mr. Harper’s rights to vigorously defend himself there. The county attorney determined that Mr. Harper had the right to fetch his gun from his bedroom, confront Mr. Fredenberg in the garage and, fearing for his safety, shoot him.” Harper claims that Fredenberg, who had no weapon, was “charging toward him, angry,” and that he feared for his life.

“You just have to claim that he was in the house illegally. If you think someone’s going to punch you in the nose or engage you in a fistfight, that’s sufficient grounds to engage in lethal force,” a Montana attorney explained to the Times.

The decision by the prosecutor to drop the case, the Times reports, hit the family “like a fourth bullet.”

“It’s tearing me up,” Fredenberg’s father says. “Dan was totally unarmed.”

The Montana “castle doctrine” law, backed by the powerful National Rifle Association, was passed in 2009. Similar “stand your ground” or “castle doctrine” laws have been passed in more than 20 states--many of them pushed by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council.

So Montana is hardly the only state to grapple with such self-defense laws. A manslaughter case in South Carolina has also attracted attention.

Preston Oates, a tow-truck driver, is accused of killing Carlos Olivera in 2010. “Olivera was shot five times in the back in a confrontation over an improperly parked minivan,” according to a local South Carolina paper’s report from last month.

But “Oates' attorneys contend he should not be tried because South Carolina's ‘Castle Doctrine’ allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves in their homes, vehicles or businesses,” reports The Beaufort Gazette. And while a Circuit Court judge has ruled “that Oates is not shielded from trial by the self-defense law,” the ruling has been appealed.

Compounding the issue is that “the local solicitor is no longer involved, and the state Attorney General's Office says it is too swamped with other cases to turn its attention to the sensational case.”

The paper opines that “South Carolina needs to re-examine its broad Castle Doctrine law to see that it is not too lenient in granting self-defense claims and that it does not bog down justice.”

Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

 
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