Stand Your Ground, Castle Doctrine Laws in National Spotlight

By Beacon Staff

It’s been over a year since a Kalispell man was shot and killed and county prosecutors decided not to press charges against the shooter, who claimed self-defense.

In the time since the incident, similar cases have garnered national attention and the U.S. Senate has held hearings about self-defense laws. But little has changed as far as this local case or the law are concerned.

Dan Fredenberg was killed on Sept. 22, 2012, and two weeks later Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan said he wouldn’t press charges because the shooter claimed self-defense under Montana’s relatively new self-defense law, commonly referred to as the castle doctrine.

The shooting and the lack of charges sparked a debate in the community about the law, which was approved by the state Legislature in 2009 and says a person does not have to retreat and can use deadly force in the face of any type of threat.

The so-called castle doctrine and similar “stand your ground” laws have come under national scrutiny lately, with a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights taking place late in October.

During the hearing, witnesses testified for and against such laws. One of the witnesses was Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen who was shot and killed in Florida last year.

Last week, an effort in Florida to repeal its stand-your-ground law was swiftly and easily defeated.

The Senate hearing brought attention to the issue, though there is no congressional action expected in regard to states with similar laws on their books. Montana is one of 22 states in which a person does not have to retreat from a threat while in a place they have a lawful right to be.

In the weeks following Fredenberg’s death, his family said they were disappointed Corrigan didn’t press charges, and that they would try to file a civil lawsuit.

Last week, Ron Fredenberg, Dan’s father, said he pursued the lawsuit but stopped because it was too expensive. He and Dan’s other family members also talked to local politicians and other political groups in Helena about the law, Ron Fredenberg said, but they got little traction.

“I can’t see the laws getting changed,” he said. “No matter what we do, it’s not going to bring Dan back, and even if they change the law, it’s not going to bring justice to the guy that shot him.”

Ron Fredenberg said his one hope is that either Corrigan changes his mind and brings the case to trial, because there is no statute of limitations on homicide, or a new county attorney gets into office and decides to prosecute.

In a recent interview, Corrigan said there has been nothing in the last year to change his mind about his decision not to prosecute, though he said he does not like the law as it is written.

Before 2009, a person could use deadly force in self-defense if they reasonably believed they were facing the threat of deadly force. Now, someone can use deadly force if they perceive any type of threat, Corrigan said, which he does not agree with.

“I don’t believe if somebody stands in your garage and says ‘I’m going to punch you in the nose,’ that you can shoot them,” Corrigan said, adding, “the (current) law says if somebody comes onto your property illegally, and you think you’re going to be assaulted, you can shoot.”

Despite his reservations about the law, Corrigan said he still believes he cannot bring charges against the shooter due to the law, and even if there was a change in the future, his office would still be bound by the current law because it was in place at the time of the incident.

“The statute of limitations on homicide is forever. But … at the time of the shooting, that’s the law that controls,” Corrigan said. “Whether I’m reelected or not, we’re bound by the law at the time.”

Both Corrigan and Ron Fredenberg said they believe the law is here to stay, and that it is unlikely the Legislature will repeal it. Although Fredenberg said he does hope his son’s case will go to trial in the future.

“This might be a case that would be tough to win because of the way that law is written, but at least we could find out,” he said.

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