The stand-your-ground law in Iowa is less than a year old, yet it has been used in two recent court cases. Both Kevin Staley’s and Lamar Wilson’s cases attempt to use the defense to prove their innocence. Because stand-your-ground includes an immunity clause, judges are given discretion to decide if dependents are, in fact, immune. The clause, however, does not specify when a judge will hear stand-your-ground defenses. This creates unequal treatment in criminal proceedings.
On Oct. 11, 2017, Staley was attacked by two men wearing masks in a dark alley. Without attempting to run away, Staley pulled out his registered firearm and shot his attacker, Devin Davis. Unfortunately, Davis died. Four months later, Staley was granted immunity by District Judge James Heckerman.
Because Iowa passed stand-your-ground, it was no longer necessary to prove defendants attempted to run away before using deadly force against those who they believed were trying to harm them. This is what allowed Heckerman to grant Staley immunity. Heckerman wrote in his order, “A reasonable person being attacked in a dark alley by masked men would believe their life to be in jeopardy.”
Staley’s case was dismissed by the judge before his jury trial even began. The judge acted independently in deciding that Staley would be granted immunity.
In late August 2017, Lamar Wilson was standing on the Pedestrian Mall when several men passed him, showing their guns. Wilson took out his gun and fired it five times, killing one and wounding two others. Wilson hoped to use stand your ground as his defense. But, unlike in Staley’s case, Wilson was not granted immediate immunity by 6th District Judge Paul Miller, who decided that Wilson’s case would first be heard by a jury.
Miller explained that holding a special evidentiary hearing prior to Wilson’s trial would give him a preview of the state’s case against him. Ultimately, Miller decided this would be unfair to the state, meaning that Wilson’s case would go to trial.
In the trial, the jury found Wilson guilty of two counts of voluntary manslaughter and two counts of assault. Wilson now faces up to 24 years in prison.
Stand your ground is a relatively new law in Iowa. The rulings in these two cases broadly sets the tone of how these cases will be handled in the future, so it is alarming that the two cases have been handled significantly differently in court. There is a clear discrepancy. One judge believed it was best to grant the defendant immunity before a jury even heard his case, and another decided he would not hear an immunity argument until after a jury came to a verdict.
Now that Wilson has been found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and other charges, Miller is left to decide if he will grant him immunity. But the real issues lies in the disparate treatment of the two cases. I do not think that a judge should have discretion to decide when to hear the stand-your-ground argument. There should be a clear process that judges should have to follow in the hearing process just as there is a clear indictment process.
As it stands, the stand-your-ground law invites unequal treatment because there is no clear process for judges to follow. Neither of the district judges did anything wrong in deciding when to hear immunity arguments from the above two cases. That being said, there needs to be an explicit process added to this law. This way, every defendant will have fair treatment.