Pa. bill would change rules for use of deadly force

Legislator wonders if expanding 'Castle Doctrine' could have made difference in trial's outcome

February 12, 2011|By JENNIFER FITCH |
  • Alloway

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — A criminal homicide trial in Franklin County (Pa.) Court this week ended in a guilty verdict for voluntary manslaughter, but it left one state legislator wondering how the outcome could've been affected by a bill he has introduced.

A jury of eight men and four women found Michael Harrigan, 30, guilty of voluntary manslaughter Thursday. It found him not guilty of first-degree and third-degree murder.

Harrigan shot his Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., neighbor May 27, 2010. In crime scene photos displayed during the trial, Steven Wetzel's lifeless body was lying on the street with a trail of blood stretching toward Harrigan's grass.

During closing arguments, the prosecution and defense addressed the "duty to retreat" in Pennsylvania law. Under that clause, a person must attempt to retreat from an attacker posing a threat of death or serious bodily injury before using deadly force. The clause applies unless the attacker is in the person's home or workplace.

State Sen. Richard Alloway II, R-Franklin/Adams/York, has reintroduced a bill that would expand the Pennsylvania "Castle Doctrine" — an English Common Law principle so named because it gives a person the right to use deadly force to protect his home — or "castle" — from attack.

That legislation would remove the "duty to retreat" and allow someone to stop a violent criminal in any place that person has a right to be.

The measure passed the Pennsylvania General Assembly last year but was vetoed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell.

"It's scheduled to be voted out of Judiciary Committee on March 1. I've spoken to my leadership, and they said they'll fast-track it because it's important," Alloway said.

Alloway said he read coverage about the Harrigan trial and thought immediately of his bill.

"My reaction was, 'How would this trial be proceeding if we had the Castle Doctrine?'" Alloway said.

Defense attorney Scott Rolle told the jury Harrigan did not want to kill anyone and wanted to take care of his family in peace. Wetzel had approached the Harrigan home twice in what was called a "drunk" and "belligerent" manner by both sides.

"At least in this jurisdiction, if you're a homeowner and you have a weapon in your house and a drunken, belligerent man ... says he fights to finish ... daggonit, you better not do anything about it, and you better have your defense attorney's card in your pocket," Rolle said.

Rolle asked the jury members what they'd do in the situation and asked them to not serve as "Monday morning quarterbacks."

"We've had four days in this courtroom to decide if that split-second decision was right," he said.

The comment about serving as "Monday morning quarterbacks" seemed to irk Franklin County Assistant District Attorney Jeremiah Zook, who referred to it repeatedly in his own closing arguments.

"It is offensive to me and it should be to you for someone to stand before you and say no one should Monday morning quarterback what the defendant did. A man died in a street of Franklin County. ... It's not Monday morning quarterbacking. It's our system of justice," Zook said.

The National Rifle Association has supported expanding the Castle Doctrine in Pennsylvania.

"We've been very active in states across the country where the laws are weak in the area of self-defense," said John Hohenwarter, state director.

There have been cases where someone who acts in self-defense ends up in a courtroom facing either criminal charges or a civil lawsuit, Hohenwarter said.

Expanding the Castle Doctrine might not prevent that person from being drawn into a courtroom, but it could give him or her better protection, he said.

"I'm hoping to get it to Gov. (Tom) Corbett's desk as soon as possible," Hohenwarter said.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association commended the former governor for vetoing the bill last year.

"Pennsylvania needs a law that supports law-abiding citizens who act in self-defense, not one that gives thugs a new line of defense to escape the law. ... We support the protection of civil liberties and Second Amendment rights. What we don't support is the shoot first, ask questions later environment this bill would have created in Pennsylvania," the organization said in a news release.

Pennsylvania citizens already have the right to defend themselves in their homes, the news release said.

"It is rare to find a case where someone who was legitimately defending themselves ended up being prosecuted," the release said.


Text of bill

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