Experts weigh in on Oregon's 'castle law,' copycat effect after spate of home intruder shootings

by Francesca Fontana | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Police respond to a fatal shooting early Thursday in Southeast Portland. Investigators say a resident fatally shot an intruder. A police officer talks to a neighbor across the street from the home where the intruder was shot. (Rebeca Bagdocimo/Staff)

Police respond to a fatal shooting early Thursday in Southeast Portland. Investigators say a resident fatally shot an intruder. A police officer talks to a neighbor across the street from the home where the intruder was shot. (Rebeca Bagdocimo/Staff)

Tara-Alexis Ford fired one bullet at the stranger in her daughter's bedroom.

Ford, 33, had come back to her Powellhurst-Gilbert home with her two children, 5 and 10, early June 26 to find a man had broken in.

David Daniel McCrary, 59, died from the single gunshot wound. He may have been suffering mental health illness, authorities said.

Four days before, Southwest Portland homeowner Robert McCall shot ex-NFL player Stanley Wilson II in the abdomen after he found Wilson naked and trying to break into his home, police said. Wilson survived, spent days in a local hospital and said he "was happy to be alive" during his arraignment on first-degree burglary and other charges.

Then on July 14, a homeowner in Southeast Portland shot and killed 30-year-old Anthony James Lazarides, suspected of breaking into the house with at least one other burglar, police said. The 45-year-old homeowner was treated for a gunshot wound. Police have declined to release more details, citing an ongoing investigation.

The cluster of three intruder shootings over 23 days is unusual, especially with two of the three encounters turning deadly, police and legal experts say.

"Generally these kinds of incidents do not happen often in any given year, even less so that results in a fatality," said Sgt. Pete Simpson, Portland police spokesman.

Overall, though, residential burglaries are down by 27 percent so far this year compared to the average of the last five years, police said.

What sets these break-ins apart is that they were high-risk, said Lewis & Clark law professor Doug Beloof. Prowlers typically don't break in when residents are likely to be home or returning home soon, he said.

The cases show the suspects' "incredibly bad judgment," Beloof said.

"One could infer that people who are mentally ill or addled by drugs might be more likely to take that risk than professional burglars would be," Beloof said. "But that doesn't make them less dangerous."

While it's unclear what motivated the first two break-ins, authorities said the third was a robbery.

"If you're going to be a criminal, breaking into a house is a really bad idea," Beloof said. There's always a chance the intruder will surprise someone, making a bad situation worse, he said.

Plus, they're just not as profitable as they once were, he said.

Electronics, for instance, used to be a huge black market commodity, but now that the products are cheaper and change so fast that criminals can't resell many of them for a worthwhile sum.

If there's less incentive for professional burglars to invade a home, "then the question is why is someone breaking into the house?" Beloof said. "If it is not a very good opportunity to get things of value, it makes the person more dangerous, (because then) why are they there?"

After the investigation of the first two shootings, grand juries cleared both McCall and Ford of wrongdoing. Authorities have yet to release the verdict on the third shooting.

It's not that hard to prove justifiable cause for shooting a home intruder in Oregon, said Jack Levin, a criminology professor emeritus at Northeastern University.

Oregon is among about 20 states that have "castle laws" that protect homeowners in these scenarios, Levin said. The Oregon statute says a person is justified in using "deadly physical force upon another person" if the other person is burglarizing or trying to burglarize a home.

"Your home is your castle according to the law," Levin said.

Under the laws, "you don't have to wait until your life is being threatened or your property is taken," Levin said. "You can open fire almost immediately."

And when making the justification to use deadly force, a resident must prove that a home invasion occurred and that the person shot was the perpetrator, but "beyond that you don't really have to prove much else," he said.

On the other hand, in states like Massachusetts, where Levin works, homeowners must be able to prove they were in imminent fear of bodily harm.

That's a tougher standard, Levin said.

 "Your life has to be in jeopardy in order to shoot a home invader," Levin said. "You can't just shoot someone; you could be charged with manslaughter or second-degree murder."

Beloof explained the logic behind the castle laws, citing U.S. Justice Department statistics that say 25 percent of burglaries occurring in an occupied residence result in violence against the homeowner.

It makes sense that people would be frightened and try to defend themselves, he said.

"People are not rational robots when their home is invaded, nor should the law expect them to be," he said.

Because the burglar creates the risk, he said, "it is unfair to shift blame to the home dweller."

One other factor to consider, Levin said, is that home invasions fall on the continuum of highly visible crimes that can cause a copycat effect – a sometimes underestimated factor in spates of crimes.

The break-ins get attention because they're particularly scary and anxiety-provoking, he said.

Likewise, news of a homeowner fighting back can galvanize others to do the same, he said. 

Homeowners may not be able to control what happens on the streets, but "they feel they can control what happens in their own residence," Levin said.

"A homeowner ... feels more justified to protect himself through the barrel of a gun because it's happened to others," he said.