- Cullman, Alabama

May 27, 2013

Self-defense law at center of Autauga case

Associated Press


The effects of retooled self-defense laws got another test recently in Autauga County this month, when a jury exonerated Erik Scoggins for the 2011 killing of Brandon Headley.

Scoggins didn't deny shooting Headley, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. He argued that he was defending himself. Prosecutors said Scoggins, who was in his truck, could've driven away. Jurors agreed with Scoggins.

At the center of the case, was Alabama's 2006 stand-your-ground law. The law specifies that an individual, regardless of whether they are in their home or business, has no obligation to retreat in the face of potential threats.

The law puts Alabama among states with the most sweeping self-defense acts. Before legislatures began altering the laws, the concept of self-defense required that a person retreat from a threat if possible.

Between that old concept and the Alabama model — which eight other states also have — is a middle ground that says an individual doesn't have to retreat if they are in their home or business. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about a dozen states take that approach.

The laws have gotten considerable attention since the February 2012 shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch members, awaits trial on second-degree murder charges. He is claiming self-defense under Florida's stand-your-ground law, which was the nation's first.

Rob Riddle, one of Scoggins' defense attorneys, says Alabama and its sister states get it right. "Erik had the legal presumption that what he did was justified," Riddle told the Advertiser. "He had a right to be where he was and he was not engaging in illegal activity.

"Really," he continued, "Stand Your Ground is reducing common sense to the law. If you are in imminent danger, you have the right to defend yourself."

District Attorney Randall Houston says the more expansive Alabama creates a new complication for prosecutors. "The right of self-defense is a fundamental right," he said. "Where you run afoul of the law is the circumstance surrounding the use of force."

According to the pre-trial investigation and testimony at trial, Scoggins went to Headley's home on March 18, 2011, to talk to Scoggins' former girlfriend. Once there, the two men argued and Headley threatened Scoggins with a large socket wrench.

When Scoggins drove away, Headley followed. At an intersection, Headley struck the back of Scoggins' truck with the wrench and continued to threaten Scoggins, who then shot him in the chest.

Under the traditional concept of self-defense, the burden could have been on Scoggins to have removed himself from the threat.

As it was, his attorney said, "Erik had mere second to react to a man that was threatening to bash his brans in with a 2-foot-long breaker bar. ... The evidence was clear that he was acting in self-defense."

Houston, the prosecutor, said the new law leaves juries to interpret undisputed facts. As for the Scoggins case, he said, "We accept the jury's decision."

Information from the Montgomery Advertiser.