The jolting sound of a door being kicked in is both unexpected — and terrifying.
A suddenly awakened homeowner jumps up to investigate, finds not only a door open but hears the sound of glass breaking.
Someone is trying to break out a window. A door is already open: Is someone else in the house?
The resident calls out a warning, “I have a gun.” The would-be intruder ignores him, continues to smash away at the window. He warns him again and ultimately fires at the intruder, killing him.
After this scenario, which was played out in a West Toledo neighborhood a week ago, those who knew the “intruder” in the case — a Central Catholic High School and University of Toledo graduate with no criminal history — wondered just how Lucas Hassen, 24, could wind up dead outside a stranger’s house.
Sgt. Joe Heffernan said police are awaiting the results of toxicology tests on Mr. Hassen in the hope they may help explain his behavior, but in the meantime it appears homeowner Bryan Loyer’s decision to shoot the intruder likely was a case of self-defense, which is protected by Ohio’s “Castle Doctrine.”
“After viewing all the evidence that we have right now, it appears as though the homeowner was in fear for his safety and acted in self-defense,” Sergeant Heffernan said, emphasizing the words “fear for his safety.”
“To say you can shoot someone on your property is false,” he said. “You can’t do that. You have to be in fear for your safety or the safety of others in order to be able to use that level of force.”
While Ohio has long recognized self-defense as a legal defense, in 2008 then-Gov. Ted Strickland signed what’s popularly known as the “Castle Doctrine,” a law that removes the duty of homeowners to retreat in such situations and gives them the benefit of the doubt when they injure or kill a person trying to illegally enter their home, business, or car.
“It’s based on the idea that a house is a person’s castle, and you should be able to protect your house and not have to hide or retreat until your back is against the wall,” explained Jeff Lingo, chief of the criminal division of the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office.
Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, a gun-rights advocacy group, said the law has given homeowners the presumption of innocence — something that had been lacking in such situations before 2008. Still, he said, he often tells gun owners who ask, “Can I shoot someone?” that they’re asking the wrong question.
“The question is, ‘Do I have to shoot someone?’ ” Mr. Irvine said. “If you have to shoot someone to stay alive or keep a family member alive or keep a family member from being critically injured, do it. If you don’t have to, don’t go down that road.
“It’s a decision you have to live with, too,” he said.
In Lucas County, there have only been a handful of incidents in which a property owner has fired at an intruder or robber in the nearly five years since the law went into effect. Mr. Lingo said each is carefully examined and presented to a grand jury just as all shootings by police officers are.
Prosecutors give the grand jury legal guidance by reading straight from the Ohio jury instructions, which say, “If the defendant was assaulted in his home or if the home was attacked, the defendant has no duty to retreat and could use such means as are necessary to repel the assailant from the home or to prevent any forcible entry to the home, even deadly force, provided he had reasonable grounds to believe and an honest belief that the use of deadly force was necessary to repel the assailant or to prevent the forcible entry.”
Defense attorney Dave Klucas, who represented a Sylvania homeowner who shot and killed an intruder in 2009, said the “Castle Doctrine” does not require the homeowner and burglar to be “nose to nose,” yet “I don’t think the ‘Castle Doctrine’ would apply if the intruder was shot in the back in the driveway — a clear indication the intruder was leaving.”
In his case, the homeowner was not indicted for killing the intruder, but was prosecuted for what was apparently the reason for the break-in, which was marijuana plants growing in the basement.
In 2010, a Toledo man who came home and shot two of three men he found inside his house — killing one and injuring one other — also was not prosecuted, although the two surviving burglars were convicted of involuntary manslaughter for their accomplice’s death.
In 2011, a North Toledo carryout clerk who shot and killed a would-be robber was indicted for voluntary manslaughter because he not only shot the robber in the head but returned after chasing the robber’s accomplice and fired 26 more times through his back. At trial, a jury acquitted him.
All the cases are different, Mr. Lingo said, and none is simple. The “Castle Doctrine” works, he said, but must be applied on a case-by-case basis.
“I believe in the Second Amendment,” he said, referring to the right to bear arms. “Our job as prosecutors is to enforce the law, and the law in Ohio clearly allows for the use of deadly force in protecting your house or business.”
Mr. Lingo declined to comment on the April 13 shooting of Mr. Hassen, saying he had not yet received the investigatory reports from police.
Toby Hoover, executive director of the Toledo-based Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, said she’s waiting to hear all the facts before passing judgment on the incident. She said she understands the right to self-defense, but worries about the message it sends.
“The unfortunate part is when people read or hear about these kinds of incidents and they think whenever they decide they might be afraid of something, they can shoot,” she said. “That isn’t true. You really have to believe your life is in danger, that you’re going to be harmed.”
Sergeant Heffernan said investigators are examining what was happening from the homeowner’s standpoint as the law requires.
“Anytime anybody uses this level of force, police officers included, everything has to be looked at through the eyes of what happened when it happened. Not second-guessing, not Monday-morning-quarterbacking lenses,” he said.
“We have to consider what was it like for that man to be awoken to his door being kicked in and the amount of force it takes to kick open a door? What was it like to see that door open and hear glass smashing in the back of the house and observe someone actively hitting his windows with what he thought was a bat, but turned out to be a hose with an attachment on it? And telling him to stop and stop again and it just continuing?”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-213-2134.