Was He Justified in Killing to Protect His Home?

Law v. State

21 Md.App. 13, 318 A.2d 859 (Md. App. 1974)

James Law, the defendant, was convicted in the Circuit Court, Charles County, of murder and assault with intent to murder and he appealed. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The Court of Special Appeals reversed and remanded.



When James Cecil Law, Jr., purchased a thirty-nine dollar shotgun for “house protection,” he could not possibly have conceived of the ordeal it would cause him to undergo. Mr. Law, a 32 year old black man, had recently married and moved to a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood. Within two weeks his home was broken into and a substantial amount of clothing and personal property was taken. The investigating officer testified that Mr. Law was highly agitated following the burglary and indicated that he would take the matter in his own hands. The officer quoted Mr. Law as saying: "I will take care of the job. I know who it is." The officer went on to say that Law told him “. . . he knew somebody he could get a gun from in D.C. and he was going to kill the man and he was going to take care of it.” Two days later he purchased a 12 gauge shotgun and several “double ought” shells.

            The intruder entered the Laws’ home between 6:30 and 9:00 in the evening by breaking a windowpane in the kitchen door which opened onto a screened back porch. The intruder then apparently reached in and unlocked the door. Law later installed “double locks” which required the use of a key both inside and outside. He replaced the glass in the door window in a temporary manner by holding it in place with a few pieces of molding, without using the customary glazing compound to seal it in.

            One week after the break-in a well meaning neighbor saw a flickering light in the Law's otherwise darkened house and became suspicious. Aware of the previous burglary, he reported to the police that some one was breaking into the Laws’ home. Although the hour was 8:00 p. m., Mr. Law and his bride had retired for the evening. When the police arrived, a fuse of circumstances ignited by fear exploded into a tragedy of errors.

            The police did not report to or question the calling neighbor. Instead they went about routinely checking the house seeking the possible illegal point of entry. They raised storm windows where they could reach them and shook the inside windows to see if they were locked. They shined flashlights upon the windows out of reach, still seeking evidence of unlawful entry. Finding none, two officers entered the back screened porch to check the back door, whereupon they saw the windowpane which appeared to have been temporarily put in place with a few pieces of molding. These officers apparently had not known of the repair or the cause of damage.

            Upstairs Mr. and Mrs. Law heard what sounded like attempts to enter their home. Keenly aware of the recent occurrence, Mr. Law went downstairs, obtained and loaded his newly acquired shotgun and, apparently facing the rear door of the house, listened for more sounds.

            In the meantime, the uniformed officers found what they thought to be the point of entry of a burglar, and were examining the recently replaced glass. While Officer Adams held the flashlight on the recently replaced pane of glass, Officer Garrison removed the molding and the glass, laid them down and stated that he was going to reach in and unlock the door from the inside to see if entry could be gained. Officer Adams testified that they “were talking in a tone a little lower than normal at this point.” Officer Adams stated that Officer Garrison then tested the inside lock, discovered it was a deadlock and decided no one could have gotten in the door without a key. A law enforcement student, riding with Officer Garrison that evening, testified that he then heard a rattling noise and someone saying “if there was somebody here, he's still in there.” As Officer Garrison removed his hand from the window he was hit by a shotgun blast which Law fired through the door. Officer Garrison was dead on arrival at the hospital.

            Officer Potts, the officer next to arrive at the scene, saw Officer Adams running to his car to call for reinforcements. He heard another shot and Officer Adams yell “they just shot at me.”

            The tragedy of errors had only begun. The officers, having obtained reinforcements and apparently believing they had cornered a burglar, subjected the house to a fusillade of gun fire evinced by over forty bullet holes in the bottom of the kitchen door and the police department transcription of a telephone conversation during the ensuing period of incomprehensible terror.

            Mr. Law testified that while he stood listening to the sounds and voices at the door, fearful that someone was about to come in “. . . the gun went off, like that, and when it went off like that it scared me and I was so scared because I had never shot a shotgun before and then I heard a voice on the outside say that someone had been shot.” Mr. Law was not able to hear who had been shot but he then “. . . hollered up to my wife, call a police officer, I think I shot a burglar.” His wife called the police and most of her conversation was recorded. It is the most accurate portrayal of that which transpired and is repeated in full: The portion of the transcription that follows involves the conversation between a female physically located within the crime scene, 6519 Medwick Road and Lt. Sellner who was located in the Communications Division.


S-Is he still downstairs?

V-I beg your pardon.

S-Hello, is he still downstairs?

V-Who is this speaking?

S-Are they still shooting?

V-Hello, hello. They're shooting in my house at my husband.

S-It's your husband?

V-They're shooting at him. Tell them to stop.

S-Alright where is he? Downstairs?

V-Tell them to stop shooting.

S-Alright, just hang on a minute. Hang on a minute. (Sounds of sporadic gunfire)

Male Voice-Hey police, hey police. Hey stop shooten, please. Stop shooten

S-Hello lady, MRS. LAW, MRS. LAW.

V-Please tell them to stop shooting.

S-Alright, tell him to put his hands up over his head and come out the front door.

V-They keep shooting.

S-Tell him to put his hands up over his head and stop his shooting.

V-He's not shooting. They are shooting at him.

S-Alright, he's not shooting anymore?

Male Voice-Hey police, police, are you the police or not.

S-Alright, just hang loose a minute. Hang on there now.

Male Voice-Hey police, I'm coming out now. You hear me. Hey police you hear me. I'm coming out now.


S-Hang on a minute.

Male-I'm coming out now. Can't you hear me? Hey police, don't you hear me?


S-Hey lady, MRS. LAW. Alright, MRS. LAW, we're going to stop the shooting over there. Tell the man, your husband, to put his hands up over his head and go out the front door.

V-Put your hands up over your head and go out the front door (Screaming) He's got to unlock the door, he's coming out. Please don't shoot him.

S-Alright, tell him to put his hands up over his head.

V-Hey, James, put your hands up over your head. OK, he's going to unlock the door, the front door was locked.

S-OK, Steve, tell them he's going to come out the front door. Alright, he opened the front door, lady?

V-Just a minute, we're trying to find the keys. (Screaming-James look in my pocketbook. James look in my pocketbook for the keys and open the front door)

V-Please don't let them shoot him.

S-Alright, tell him to just unlock the front door and they've stopped the shooting now, haven't they?


V-Screaming-James look in my pocketbook and get the keys to the front door.

S-Alright, you got the front door open?

V-He hasn't got it open yet. He's trying to find the key.

S-Is anybody in the house other than your husband?

V-I don't know, sir. I'm still upstairs. Hey James, look in my pocketbook. Officer, please.

S-Alright just tell him to do what I tell him to do. Put his hands up over his head and go out that front door. Is your husband the one who called the police or was the one who broke in or what?

V-James, put your hands up over your head and go out the front door.

S-Has he gone outside, ma'am?

V-No, he's still trying to get the keys. Please don't let them shoot him. He didn't bother nobody.

S-Alright just take and hold on there a minute. Then the cars outside have stopped shooting, right?

Male Voice-They're not police.

V-He says you're not the police. Are you a police?


V-He said they're not.

S-Who's not the police? Have you got the front door open?

V-Are you sure you're the police?

S-Has he got the front door open yet?

V-They're breaking in.

S-They're breaking in? Has he gone over to the front door yet? Hey, they're breaking in the door over there.

MALE VOICE-Hey police, police please don't kill me.

MALE VOICE-I don't know if you're the police.



MALE VOICE IN THE BACKGROUND-Yelling at the police.

V-Hello, he's not armed.

S-Hello, MRS. LAW, has he got out the front door yet?

V-Just a minute. James go out the front door so nobody will hurt you.

MALE-How can I go out the front door when I can't find the keys?

V-The front door is locked and he can't find the keys.

S-Alright, wait a minute. Can he go out the back door?

V-Just a minute. Can you go out the back door, James?

MALE-I support the police

S-MRS. LAW, can he get out the back door? Alright, tell him to go out the back door.

V-James, he says go to the back door.

S-Alright he's going to go out the back door. He can't go out the front door because the front door is locked.

V-Don't fire.

S-He's coming out the back door. Alright, tell him to put his hands over his head and come to the back door. Come out the back door. Alright, he's going to put his hands over his head and come out the back door.

V-James, go out the back door.

S-Alright, are you coming out now? Alright, tell him to open the door and put his hands over his head. If he can't get out the front door, tell him to go out the back door.

V-The back door is locked also. Sir, we're not trying to harm anybody.

S-You don't have a key to either door?

V-Hold on James, they're the police so open the door.

MALE-I'm coming out, I'm coming out. You police hold your fire.

S-Did he get the door open?

V-James go on out.

MALE-You're not the police.

V-They are the police, honey, they are (HEAVY GUNFIRE).

V-Officer, officer, they're shooting at him again.

S-Hey, they're shooting out there again.

S-Alright just hold on there.

MALE-Screaming very loudly, “They're not the police, they're not the police” They shot me in my own house. They're not the police.

V-Officer, officer, please, officer, officer, officer!

S-Hello MRS. LAW. Has he gone out the back door yet?

V-Yes, officer, please come here in person.

S-Alright hang on a minute.


S-Alright, will you wait a minute?

MALE-Hey officer, they come in my house and shoot at her and shot me. They're shooting at me. I threw my gun out the window and they shot. They shot me for no reason.

S-Alright, will you go out the door with your hands over you head?


S-Will you go out the front door with your hands over your head?

S-Hello, MRS. LAW, MRS. LAW, that man is still shooting out the window.

V-No my husband is not shooting, honestly.

S-Alright, tell him to go out front with his hands over his head. Tell him to throw his gun out the house.

V-James throw the gun out.

S-Hello, yes MRS. LAW, MRS. LAW tell him to throw his gun out of the house.

V-I told him to throw it out.

S-Tell him to go to the front door and put his hands over his head and walk outside that house.

V-He's downstairs officer.

A-Alright, holler down to him and tell him to put his hands over his head and walk outside that house.

V-He's downstairs officer.

S-Alright, holler down to him and tell him to put his hands over his head and go out the front door. He can open it. He can open it. A while ago he opened it up and went outside and fired some shots. MRS. LAW, tell him to open the front door and go outside. MRS. LAW, is he going outside?

S-Hello, MRS. LAW, MRS. LAW. Hello.


S-Yes, MRS. LAW.

V-I hear a lot of walking all over the house.

S-I can't hear you.

V-Are they in my house?

S-I don't know ma'am, I'm not there. Did he go out the front door, Hello. MRS. LAW.

V-Officer, I believe they're in the house.

S-What ma'am.

V-I think they're in the house.

S-You think the police are in the house.

V-Would you tell somebody that I'm upstairs.

S-Alright, Steve, tell the cars that there is a lady upstairs. MRS. LAW is upstairs. Okay, look why don't you holler down to them and tell them you are up there.

V-Would you please tell them.

S-Yes, we are telling them on the radio. But they don't have too many radios with them.

V-I don't think anybody that has ever heard about or knows my husband been hit oh, officer, please.

V-Officer . . .

S-Alright, alright. You're been doing real good thru this lady just hang on a while longer.

V-A littler while longer.

S-Alright tell them someone is upstairs. His wife is upstairs. She's on the phone to me. Alright MRS. LAW you still there.


S-Okay just stay right there. They'll be coming up in a minute. Why don't you open the door and holler down to them.

V-Officer, officer, He told me to come down.

S-Alright put your hands over top of your head now Ma'am and go down the steps. Alright!


S-Bye now.

V-I'm upstairs officer. Officer alright I'm coming. Officer, Officer, Officer.

S-They're inside. Troops inside.

S-Hello, hello, hello (background noise LONG DISTANCE OPERATOR: Hello


LONG DISTANCE OPERATOR-This is the long distance operator.


LDO-Is this call finished.

S-No, it is still in use.

LDO-Okay Sir.

S-Okay (more background noise).

Male voices-not legible.

S-Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello (Male voices) Hello, hello, hello.


The appellant, James Cecil Law, Jr. was found guilty of murder in the second degree and of assault with intent to murder. He was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Charles County following removal from Prince George's County. Judge James C. Mitchell sentenced him to concurrent ten year terms.


 . . . There is a dearth of Maryland authority upon the question of what constitutes justifiable homicide in the defense of one's home. We hasten to note, however, that the single case directly meeting the question does so concisely and clearly. In 1962, the Court of Appeals in Crawford v. State, 231 Md. 354, 190 A.2d 538, reversed a conviction of manslaughter against a 42 year old man, suffering from a nervous condition and ulcers, whose home was being broken into be a 23 year old man and a partner. The decedent had knocked out a piece of masonite replacing one of four glass panes in the door. Crawford fired a shotgun through the door killing the attacker before he was able to enter. Certain of the circumstances of that case coincide remarkably with the case at bar. It is as remarkably distinguished, however, by the character and purpose of the decedent, who had previously beaten Crawford and was returning to rob and beat him again after threatening to do so. . . .

            The defense of habitation is explained by text writers and treated in Crawford as an extension of the right of self-defense. The distinction between the defense of home and the defense of person is primarily that in the former there is no duty to retreat. “A man in his own house was treated as 'at the wall' and could not, by another's assault, be put under any duty to flee therefrom.”

            The regal aphorism that a man's home is his castle has obscured the limitations on the right to preserve one's home as a sanctuary from fear of force or violence. Crawford articulates the rule well, distilling it from a review of cases in many jurisdictions:

Most American jurisdictions in which the question has been decided have taken the view that if an assault on a dwelling and an attempted forcible entry are made under circumstances which would create a reasonable apprehension that it is the design of the assailant to commit a felony or to inflict on the inhabitants injury which may result in loss of life or great bodily harm, and that the danger that the design will be carried into effect is imminent, a lawful occupant of the dwelling may prevent the entry even by the taking of the intruder's life.


The felonies the prevention of which justifies the taking of a life “are such and only such as are committed by forcible means, violence, and surprise such as murder, robbery, burglary, rape or arson.”  . . . It is “essential that killing is necessary to prevent the commission of the felony in question. If other methods would prevent its commission, a homicide is not justified; all other means of preventing the crime must first be exhausted.”

            The right thus rests upon real or apparent necessity. It is this need for caution in exercising the right that has been relegated to obscurity. The position espoused by appellant typifies the misunderstanding of the extent of the right to defend one's home against intrusion. He says:


The defendant is not required to act as a reasonable, prudent and cautious individual, nor was he required to limit his force to only that that was required under the circumstances—not when the defendant was in his own home, and believed he was being set upon, or about to be set upon by would be robbers or burglars who were in the act of breaking into his home at the time.


The judgment which must usually be made precipitously under frightening conditions nevertheless demands a certain presence of mind and reasonableness of judgment. Although one is “not obliged to retreat . . . but . . . may even pursue the assailant until he finds himself or his property out of danger . . ., this will not justify a person's firing upon everyone who forceably enters his house, even at night.” . . . The taking of life is not justified “unless unavoidable . . .. Beyond this the law does not authorize the sacrifice of human life or the infliction of serious bodily injury.”

In 1894 Mr. Justice Harlan redefined the scope of the rule within its permissible limits:


In East's Pleas of the Crown, the author, considering what sort of an attack it was lawful and justifiable to resist, even by the death of the assailant, says: “A man may repel force by force in defense of his person, habitation, or property against one who manifestly intends and endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a known felony, such as murder, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, and the like, upon either. In these cases he is not obliged to retreat, but may pursue his adversary until he has secured himself from all danger; and if he kill him in so doing it is called justifiable self-defense; as, on the other hand, the killing by such felon of any person so lawfully defending himself will be murder. But a bare fear of any of these offenses, however well grounded, as that another lies in wait to take away the party's life, unaccompanied with any overt act indicative of such an intention, will not warrant in killing that other by way of prevention . . .." (My italics.) Beard v. United States, 158 U.S. 550, 563, 15 S.Ct. 962, 966, 39 L.Ed. 1086.


Judgments reversed; case remanded for a new trial [The court reversed and remanded the case because the conviction was based on a coerced confession that violated Miranda v. Arizona]

Questions for Discussion

1. Exactly how does the court define the defense of habitation?

2. List all of the facts relevant to deciding whether James Cecil Law is entitled to the defense.

3. Assume that you’re the prosecutor. Argue that Law was not justified in killing the officer. Rely on the court’s definition and the facts of the case to back up your arguments.

4. Now, assume that you’re the defense lawyer. Argue that Law was justified in killing the officer. Rely on the court’s definition and the facts of the case to back up your arguments.

5. When the case was remanded and the court on remand rejected Law’s defense of home defense, the court commented on the mitigating circumstances that might reduce Law’s punishment:


            We think the evidence . . . fairly generated an issue of mitigation. At the time of the homicide, appellant and his bride of a few weeks were alone in the bedroom in their darkened house. Two weeks before the homicide their house had been burglarized. They heard noises outside. Appellant got out of bed, nude, and went downstairs to investigate the matter. He continued to hear noises like someone was “trying to get in”. He obtained from the living room his shotgun, purchased for “home protection” after his house had been burglarized two weeks before. He heard a noise on his back porch, “a fiddling around with the door”. There were curtains on the back door and he could see no figures on the darkened back porch. He felt that there were burglars on his porch, and “then I heard the scraping of a window pane.” He next heard a voice say, “lets go in”. At that time he was in the living room, “standing there with my shotgun shaking . . .” because he was scared. In appellant's words, “at that time the gun went off”. He said he didn't know how the gun went off; he could have pulled the trigger intentionally or accidentally; he didn't know. When the gun went off, it was held about waist high pointed toward the back door. The single shotgun blast went through the door killing police officer Garrison, who at that time was attempting to gain entrance to the house. The blast narrowly missed police officer Adams who was standing beside officer Garrison. The two officers had gone to the house in response to a call from appellant's next door neighbor who, unknown to appellant or his wife, had earlier called the police to report a suspected burglary attempt at appellant's house. The State conceded in closing argument that appellant did not knowingly shoot a police officer and that “he probably thought he shot a burglar or whatever that was outside”.

            Although by far the most common form of mitigation is that of a hot-blooded response to legally adequate provocation, this is not the only form of mitigation that will negate malice and will reduce what might otherwise be murder to manslaughter.  . . . For example, if one man kills another intentionally, under circumstances beyond the scope of innocent homicide, the facts may come so close to justification or excuse that the killing will be classed as voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

Do you think that this is evidence of mitigation or evidence of justifiable homicide in the defense of home? Explain your answer.

Law v. State, 29 Md.App. 457, 349 A.2d 295 (Md. App. 1975)