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Published: Wednesday, 6/3/2009

The limits of self-defense

AN OKLAHOMA City pharmacist is being lauded as a hero by some for foiling an attempted robbery by shooting and killing one of the robbers. He is also being called a murderer in charges filed by the local district attorney.

Both claims may be true.

Many say Jerome Ersland was acting in self-defense when he turned the tables on the two bad guys, one of whom was brandishing a gun, by pulling his own weapon and shooting one of the would-be robbers in the head. One supporter even went so far as to post Mr. Ersland's $100,000 bail, according to the Associated Press, and his cause has been taken up by conservative radio talk-show hosts.

Antwun Parker, the dead robber, it turns out was 16, and his partner in crime, 14. Family and friends, as is often the case after a fatal shooting, say young Antwun was a good boy. It also turns out the gun may have been empty and the robbery may have been the idea of a couple of adults who waited outside.

None of that matters. The initial shooting seems to be well within Oklahoma's self-defense law.

But what was caught on the pharmacy surveillance tape after the robber was shot changed everything, making the robbery victim a defendant in a murder case.

In the video, the teens can be seen entering the pharmacy wearing ski masks. One points a gun at Mr. Ersland, who pulls his own gun and shoots, hitting the other robber in the head. The robber with the gun flees and Mr. Ersland follows, returning to the pharmacy about 30 seconds later.

The surveillance video doesn't show the teen on the floor. What the video does show is Mr. Ersland calmly walking by where the injured robber lay, then returning and pointing a gun in the direction of where the body fell. Police say he shot the teen in the stomach five times, killing him. The pharmacist told police the robber was trying to get up and reached for a gun. Police say no gun was found at the scene.

The entire incident, from the time the robbers walked into the store, took about a minute.

People are outraged that Mr. Ersland was charged with murder. The judge who set Mr. Ersland's bond even received death threats. But it appears the District Attorney David Prater is doing exactly the right thing. Self-defense laws are not get-out-of-jail-free cards declaring open season on bad guys; they include limits on the use of force to prevent just this sort of circumstance.

Mr. Ersland would have stopped being a victim when the robber stopped being a threat. If that proves to be the case, he's no hero.



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