Exchange Student’s Death Tests ‘Stand Your Ground’

New laws make it easier for people to avoid prosecution in a shooting

By Lisa Baumann, Associated Press

MISSOULA — Attorneys for a Montana man said in court Thursday his adrenaline was sky high and that he was defending his home when he fired a shotgun four times into his garage in late April, killing a 17-year-old German exchange student.

Montana prosecutors said in the trial’s opening statements Thursday that Markus Kaarma, although claiming self-defense, was in fact the aggressor. They say he lured high-schooler Diren Dede into his garage by leaving the door partially open and a purse inside.

Opening statements and the first witnesses were called in Kaarma’s murder trial Thursday, in what’s become another test of “stand your ground” laws in the U.S.

The laws make it easier for people to avoid prosecution in a shooting by saying they felt an imminent danger, whether or not the person shot was armed. Dede, from the German city of Hamburg, was not carrying a weapon.

The German government is closely following the case and has condemned the killing as out of proportion to any risk to Kaarma.

Dede’s parents, Celal and Gulcin Dede, are observing the trial from the front row of the courtroom accompanied by German attorneys

Prosecutors said in court that Kaarma fired four times with a pause between the third and fourth shot, without giving warning after an intruder tripped sensors he had installed.

“Neighbors heard the sequence of shots; they heard boom, boom, boom, pause, boom,” Deputy County Attorney Jennifer Clark said. She believes Dede had been crouching behind a car after the first shots were fired. “We’ll be back to ask you to hold this man responsible for deliberately taking the life of Diren Dede.”

It’s not clear what Dede was doing in Kaarma’s garage, though defense attorneys claim that Dede, who played soccer at Big Sky High School in Missoula, was part of a band of teenagers burglarizing homes in town.

Days before, Kaarma had told a woman that his house had been burglarized twice and he had been waiting up nights to shoot an intruder, according to court records.

Paul Ryan, an attorney for Kaarma, said Thursday that there had been a number of break-ins in the neighborhood and Kaarma believed police weren’t doing anything about it. He noted that Kaarma didn’t know whether the person inside the garage was armed.

He also spoke to Kaarma’s personality, saying he has social anxiety, doesn’t like to be around people and after the first burglaries, Kaarma felt targeted and increasingly anxious for the safety of his partner Janelle Pflager and their infant son.

Ryan also argued that Montana law allows homeowners to protect their residences with deadly force when they believe they are going to be harmed.

More than 30 states have laws expanding the self-defense principle known as the “castle doctrine,” echoing the old saying, “my home is my castle.”

That principle came under scrutiny in the 2012 shooting of an unarmed Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was following the 17-year-old. George Zimmerman was acquitted after arguing self-defense.

During jury selection this week, Kaarma’s defense team objected to the fact that a student who was with Dede at Kaarma’s property, Robby Pazmino, is out of the country and not immediately available to testify, The Missoulian reported. Pazmino, an exchange student from Ecuador, told police after the shooting that he watched Dede enter the garage but ran off after hearing an unfamiliar voice and a shot.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.