Though the case initially ignited a firestorm over Montana's "castle doctrine," prosecutors ultimately convinced jurors that Markus Kaarma was not acting within the law when he shot and killed a teenage intruder in his garage.
Kaarma was sentenced last week to 70 years in prison – without the possibility of parole for the next 20 – for murdering the unarmed German exchange student, 17-year-old Diren Dede.
There is hope that the guilty verdict and Kaarma's subsequent sentence clarifies Montanans' conception of when they are allowed to use lethal force against an intruder. More specifically, Missoula attorney Josh Van de Wetering said, the castle doctrine does not allow a resident to shoot a person who is on their property but hasn't exhibited a threat.
"There's a misperception that if a person is trespassing on your property, you can shoot them," said Van de Wetering. "That's just flat wrong. You do not have that right under the law."
Van de Wetering is a former prosecutor for Missoula County and the U.S. Attorney's Office. He's currently in private practice in Missoula and teaches criminal procedure at the University of Montana Law School.
He said the myth of a right to defend one's home emboldens some Montanans to shoot first and ask questions later. And that "saddens" him.
"I hope people understand there has to be some threat of physical violence before someone can react with physical violence," he said.
Van de Wetering explained the only reason to use deadly force is if you reasonably believe that you have to use that amount of force to protect your life or the life of another. The threat cannot be speculative and the reaction must be immediate, he said.
The "castle doctrine" refers to Montana Code Annotated 45-3-103, which essentially says a person is justified in using deadly force when that person "reasonably" believes that the use of force is necessary to prevent or terminate someone else's unlawful entry or attack upon the structure.
The law goes on to say that a person must "reasonably" believe lethal force is necessary to prevent an assault upon the person or another then in the occupied structure; or to prevent a forcible felony in the structure.
Kaarma's team of five attorneys, led by Paul Ryan, argued Kaarma was preventing the Big Sky High School student from committing a forcible felony, i.e. burglary, when he entered Kaarma's open garage looking for alcohol.
But prosecutors said there was no proof that Dede was actually committing a burglary – since it was unclear if he had taken anything from the garage.
Dede, in fact, never communicated what he was going to do in the garage to his friend Robby Pazmino, who was with him that night.
Alerted to Dede's presence by a baby monitor and motion detectors, Kaarma grabbed a shotgun and exited the front door of his home on the evening of April 27, and turned to face the garage.
While he leaned up against his truck, parked at the entrance to the garage, he told police he heard metal on metal and imagined an object being thrown at his head.
Kaarma fired four times and shots hit Dede twice – once in the arm and once in the head. Kaarma's partner, Janelle Pflager, told police she heard Dede plead for his life before Kaarma delivered the final shot.
A Missoula jury found that Kaarma wasn't reasonable in his decision to fire at Dede, Missoula County Prosecutor Jennifer Clark explained in an interview this week.
"(Kaarma) didn't know," she said. "He didn't identify Diren and couldn't assess the threat."
Ultimately, Clark and fellow prosecutors Karla Painter and Andrew Paul successfully proved that Kaarma didn't operate within the castle doctrine because he couldn't see Dede in the darkened garage.
He couldn't argue that he was protecting his "castle" or his partner and baby boy, because he was outside the home firing in – where the boy lay sleeping. Pflager also may have been inside the home.
The castle doctrine is complex, Van de Wetering said, but it boils down to common sense.
"I wish people had more of the attitude – you don't shoot unless you absolutely have to," Van de Wetering said. "You are allowed to defend yourself. I think what the law is really getting at here is, of course, if you have to shoot somebody, you have to. But if you don't have to, you don't have the right."
Van de Wetering cited two recent examples in which homeowners have been found justified in their use of deadly force to protect themselves against an intruder.
Tobias Ian Bishop, of Missoula, was fatally shot by a Corvallis homeowner last March after he broke a window into the home and entered through it.
A few months before that incident, a Missoula resident shot 22-year-old Dillon Franklin, who used a chair to smash his picture window and crawl through the shattered glass to enter the residence. Franklin survived his injuries.
"If someone is coming through the window in the house, it's reasonable to believe that that person is there to harm," Van de Wetering said.
Those two examples are completely different than the Kaarma case, he said.
"It's a profound act to take another person's life," he said. "I don't think your stuff was ever worth it."
The castle doctrine has been the subject of much debate at home and abroad. As German media descended on Missoula for the trial, there was some confusion about whether the home-defense statute allowed for Kaarma's lethal reaction to Dede's intrusion.
In an interview before the sentencing, Dede's father Celal said through attorney Bernhard Docke that he hoped the conviction – and ultimately the sentencing – would be a message to gun owners that "you can't just use your gun in a deadly way for a ridiculous situation. The castle doctrine is no excuse to fire a gun."
He added that he hoped the conviction and sentencing would add clarity to Montanans' perception of the law and in doing so, make the state more peaceful.
"I don't want to give the people of Montana a lecture for what's right and what's wrong," his attorney added. "I'm not in the situation to say this is right and this is wrong. It's up to Montana to determine their own laws. My impression was that the castle doctrine could be misunderstood in a way you could use your firearms (if someone) unarmed crosses the border of your land."
"If this sentence would be the initiative to think about these questions, good," he added.
Neither Clark nor Van de Wetering think the law as it stands now should change fundamentally. Clark said she would tweak language here and there, while Van de Wetering said he took issue with the stand your ground laws that state a person being attacked has no reason to retreat.
But ultimately, the law as it stands protects the "sanctity" of one's home while forbidding people from taking lethal force against an intruder who hasn't exhibited violence.
"If you are going to own firearms and plan on using them for your own protection," Clark said, "it's your responsibility to safely operate them and understand the law that allows you to do so."