Criminal Justice

Homeowner is charged in shooting death of student in his garage; self-defense law switches burden

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Prosecutors who charged a Montana homeowner in the shooting death of a “garage-hopping” student will have to deal with state law giving stronger protections to those who shoot intruders.

Homeowner Markus Kaarma, 29, of Missoula was released on bond after being charged with homicide in the April 27 slaying of 17-year-old German exchange student Diren Dede, report the New York Times and the Missoulian in stories here and here.

The Times says that garage hopping is a fad where teenagers enter open garages and take items they find. Kaarma’s attorney Paul Ryan told the Missoulian that that’s what Dede was doing in Kaarma’s garage.

According to Ryan, Kaarma had been burglarized twice before and he feared for the safety of his 10-month-old son. The thieves had previously made off with credit cards and phones that were in the garage, Ryan said. In response to those incidents, Kaarma set up a motion detector and a video camera. When the technology alerted Kaarma that an intruder was in the garage and headed toward the kitchen door, Kaarma got a shotgun. He exited his front door, Ryan said, and fired four shots into the dark garage, killing Dede.

Ryan said the garage door was open for ventilation because Kaarma and the woman he lived with smoked in the garage. The couple had placed a purse with marked belongings in the garage so they could track any thieves, but it was in the back of the garage and was not intended to be bait, Ryan said.

A search warrant for Kaarma’s home said burglars had previously taken marijuana from the garage. A hair stylist at Great Clips told police that Kaarma had visited the salon and talked about waiting with his shotgun for three nights “to shoot some kid.”

According to the Times, Montana enacted more legal protections five years ago for homeowners who kill intruders. The law puts the burden on prosecutors to rebut claims of self-defense.

The old laws said homeowners could use force if an assailant entered the home in a “violent, riotous or tumultuous manner, the Times says. Now homeowners can use force if they reasonably believe it is necessary to prevent an assault on someone inside the home or to prevent a forcible felony, which is a felony where force or threat of force is used, according to this opinion column in the Great Falls Tribune by the author of a book on Montana gun laws.

Updated at 12:03 p.m. to add the definition of “garage hopping.”

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