Vancouver shooting raises questions about self-defense

Lawyers discuss state's justifiable homicide law

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

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The case against a Vancouver homeowner who said he fatally shot a prowler in self-defense last month raises some important questions: When are you legally justified in killing someone? And when does it become murder?

Washington's state law that defines justifiable homicide is fairly brief.

In layman's terms, the circumstances must meet one of two standards: 1. The slayer, his or her family or someone in the vicinity is in imminent danger of great injury, or 2. The slayer was resisting the slain person from committing a felony upon the slayer.

"It's a critically important statute in these situations, and yet it's very short," Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fairgrieve said.

Jurors may be asked to apply this law to the state's case against Sean Doucette, the 27-year-old Vancouver man accused of killing Iosif Dumitrash, 19, of Portland.

Doucette was arraigned Tuesday on a charge of second-degree murder, which alleges that at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 29, Doucette arrived at his home, 14802 N.E. 33rd St., heard a car alarm and saw what he described as a prowler. After an altercation, Doucette shot the man four times, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Camara Banfield said during last month's hearing.

Doucette, through attorney Steven Thayer, said that Dumitrash attacked him and that his actions were in self-defense. At the arraignment, Doucette pleaded not guilty.

The short two-scenario statute, however, is not the only thing potential jurors would have to consider.

The self-defense law has numerous amendments that add clarity to the many "what-ifs" asked over years of appellate court decisions.

For example, a 1907 Supreme Court decision amended to the law reads that self-defense fails when the defendant could have avoided the altercation.

Another example, from a 1955 decision, states that the slain person must have been in the act of committing a violent felony for justifiable homicide to apply.

The jury must first decide which facts of a situation have been proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt, Farigrieve said. Then, they turn to the jury instructions for guidance.

A glance at a standard set of jury instructions used in most cases where self-defense is argued shows that the most common thing that a pool of your peers would have to agree upon is: What is reasonable?

Jurors must decide if the defendant reasonably believed that the person they killed intended to commit a felony or inflict death or great personal injury, or if the defendant reasonably believed that there was imminent danger.

Tom Phelan, a Vancouver defense attorney with 32 years of experience, said that sometimes that belief of imminent danger can be false.

"The jury has to consider the use of force from the defendant's perspective," he said. "They have to take into account the circumstances known to defendant … even if it's under a mistaken belief"

For this article, both Fairgrieve and Phelan spoke generally about the law and not about a specific case.

When defendants claim they were acting in self-defense, the state has the burden to prove that the homicide was not justified.

Situations, both lawyers said, are very factually dense. Different components to each case can end up being sticking points with jurors.

"It really depends on the specific facts of the case," Fairgrieve said.

A home invasion, he said, presents one example.

"If an individual breaks into your home, and he or she is armed with a deadly weapon, most people would feel that at that point, their lives are in imminent danger," he said. "We place tremendous emphasis on the sanctity of home. That's where we feel we have our highest expectation of privacy, greatest safety and security."

That does not, however, mean that every instance of homicide involving a home invasion is justified.

If the invader is unarmed and not threatening, Fairgrieve said, it would be harder for a juror to reasonably believe that the slayer's actions were justified.

Phelan said that if a jury has an easy time understanding the defendant's rationale, they likely have a better case.

But, if "circumstances are such that 1 in 15 people might act that way, it might be tougher to sell," he said.

The public, Fairgrieve said, would likely benefit from reviewing the law and the jury instructions commonly used in these cases.

"It would be good for everyone to know what the requirements are, when you can and can't use deadly force," he said.

Emily Gillespie: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops; emily.gillespie@columbian.com