AP Enterprise: Deaths loom over self-defense laws

A Jackson, Mississippi, convenience store clerk was charged with murder after chasing down a man and shooting him dead over a case of beer this summer. A week later, a clerk at another Jackson convenience store followed and fatally shot a man he said tried to rob him, and authorities let him go without charges.

Police say the robber in the second case was armed, while the man accused of stealing beer was not.

Just the same, the legal plights of the two clerks highlight the uncertain impact of National Rifle Association-backed laws sweeping the nation that make it easier to justify shooting in self-defense.

In 2006, Mississippi adopted its version of the so-called castle doctrine, which lifts requirements that individuals first try to flee before using deadly force to counter a threat in their homes, vehicles or, in Mississippi's case, at work.

Gun rights advocates who have helped pass the law in 23 states since 2003 say it removes an unfair legal penalty for people exercising a constitutional right in a life-or-death emergency. But some police and prosecutors are skeptical of self-defense claims under the law.

An Associated Press review found a growing number of cases but no clear trend yet in how the law is applied or how cases will be resolved in court.

All a defendant has to do is establish a threat, and usually the other witness is dead. That shifts the burden to prosecutors and police investigators, who have to gather evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that deadly force wasn't justified.

"Castle doctrine" laws drew national attention when Joe Horn of Pasadena, Texas, shot and killed two men in November 2007 he saw crawling out of the windows of a neighbor's house, carrying bags of the neighbor's possessions. Horn claimed the shooting was justified by Texas' law, and a Harris County grand jury declined to indict him.

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