We’ll be covering the second degree murder trial of Merritt Landry, who was charged with second degree attempted murder for his shooting 14-year-old Marshall Coulter (described as a “professional thief” by his brother in news reports).

Coulter had scaled a spiked metal fence to enter Landry’s property at 2AM, in a Louisiana neighborhood riven by burglaries, home invasions, and car-jackings.

Landry, alerted to the presence of the intruder by his dog, and acting in defense of his pregnant wife and infant child, as well as himself, fired his licensed handgun at Coulter when it appeared the “professional thief” was reaching for a weapon.

Landry’s single shot struck the intruder in the head, severely wounding him. As of this writing, Coulter remains alive, albeit grievously injured.

Merrit Landry dog

(The Landry’s pet dog which alerted the homeowner to the presence of an intruder within his gated and secured driveway at 2:00AM.)

I first wrote of the Merritt Landry case a week-and-a-half ago right here at legal insurrection, Merritt Landry Allies Developing Narrative of Innocence, and we’ll be covering the case in detail as it develops.

Of interest is that the local Justice for Merritt Landry group is organizing rallies in support of Landry, and trying to prevent the case from attracting racial agitators, unlike the Zimmerman case.

Justice for Merritt Landry posters

(Justice for Merritt Landry posters)

In preparation for our coverage of the case I thought it might be useful to set a stake in the ground in the form of the relevant Louisiana self-defense statutes that will come into play.

Louisiana’s Idiosyncratic Self-defense Laws

Louisiana is a bit of an oddity when it comes to its self defense law.

Most states differentiate defensive force on the basis of whether the force is “deadly”—meaning, reasonably capable of causing death or great bodily harm—or “non-deadly”—meaning any lesser degree of force. Often states will have one statute for self-defense with deadly force and a second statute for self-defense with non-deadly force.

Under this paradigm, if one uses deadly force in self-defense they fall under the conditions of the deadly-force self-defense statute, regardless of whether the person against whom they used force actually died. What matters is the force used, not the outcome of that force. Shoot and miss, and you have still used deadly force and still fall under the deadly force self-defense statute.

Louisiana, in contrast, differentiates its self-defense statutes on the outcome of that use of force. Use deadly force, but the person you used it against survives, and you fall under Louisiana Revised Statute (LRS) 19. If the person dies, you fall under LRS 20.

With that said, let’s take a look at the actual statutes.

LRS §19. Use of force or violence in defense

LRS §19 provides that:

A. The use of force or violence upon the person of another is justifiable when committed for the purpose of preventing a forcible offense against the person or a forcible offense or trespass against property in a person’s lawful possession, provided that the force or violence used must be reasonable and apparently necessary to prevent such offense, and that this Section shall not apply where the force or violence results in a homicide.

B. For the purposes of this Section, there shall be a presumption that a person lawfully inside a dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle held a reasonable belief that the use of force or violence was necessary to prevent unlawful entry thereto, or to compel an unlawful intruder to leave the premises or motor vehicle, if both of the following occur:

(1) The person against whom the force or violence was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering or had unlawfully and forcibly entered the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle.

(2) The person who used force or violence knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry was occurring or had occurred.

C. A person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and who is in a place where he or she has a right to be shall have no duty to retreat before using force or violence as provided for in this Section and may stand his or her ground and meet force with force.

D. No finder of fact shall be permitted to consider the possibility of retreat as a factor in determining whether or not the person who used force or violence in defense of his person or property had a reasonable belief that force or violence was reasonable and apparently necessary to prevent a forcible offense or to prevent the unlawful entry.

Note that the first section of LRS 19 provides that it “shall not apply where the force or violence results in a homicide.” So long as “professional thief” Marshall Coulter does not die from Landry’s shot, this is the statute that Landry will use in his claim of self-defense, regardless of the fact that he used deadly force in defense of himself and his family.

Note also section B, which applies to a person lawfully inside a dwelling—as Landry surely was, in his own home. It provides for a presumption that he held a reasonable belief that the use of force was necessary to prevent unlawful entry into the dwelling if both of two factors occur: (1) the person against whom the force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering the dwelling AND (2) the person using the force had reason to believe an unlawful and forcible entry was occurring.

In this case, the question for the jury will be whether it a reasonable and prudent person in Landry’s position—living in a neighborhood ravaged by home burglaries and home invasions, alerted by his dog to an intruder in his small, fenced-in driveway at 2AM, and confronted by a furtive figure in the dark of that hour apparently reaching for a weapon—would have reasonably believed that the intruder, having already scaled a spiked, steel fence to gain entry to his driveway was “in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering the dwelling”.

LRS §20. Justifiable homicide

In the event that “professional thief” Marshall Coulter dies, however, LRS 19 is swept to the side and replaced by LRS 20, which provides:

LRS §20 provides that:

A. A homicide is justifiable:

(1) When committed in self-defense by one who reasonably believes that he is in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm and that the killing is necessary to save himself from that danger.

(2) When committed for the purpose of preventing a violent or forcible felony involving danger to life or of great bodily harm by one who reasonably believes that such an offense is about to be committed and that such action is necessary for its prevention. The circumstances must be sufficient to excite the fear of a reasonable person that there would be serious danger to his own life or person if he attempted to prevent the felony without the killing.

(3) When committed against a person whom one reasonably believes to be likely to use any unlawful force against a person present in a dwelling or a place of business, or when committed against a person whom one reasonably believes is attempting to use any unlawful force against a person present in a motor vehicle as defined in R.S. 32:1(40), while committing or attempting to commit a burglary or robbery of such dwelling, business, or motor vehicle.

(4)

(a) When committed by a person lawfully inside a dwelling, a place of business, or a motor vehicle as defined in R.S. 32:1(40), against a person who is attempting to make an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, or who has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, and the person committing the homicide reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the entry or to compel the intruder to leave the premises or motor vehicle.

(b) The provisions of this Paragraph shall not apply when the person committing the homicide is engaged, at the time of the homicide, in the acquisition of, the distribution of, or possession of, with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance in violation of the provisions of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law.

B. For the purposes of this Section, there shall be a presumption that a person lawfully inside a dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle held a reasonable belief that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent unlawful entry thereto, or to compel an unlawful intruder to leave the premises or motor vehicle, if both of the following occur

(1) The person against whom deadly force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering or had unlawfully and forcibly entered the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle.

(2) The person who used deadly force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry was occurring or had occurred.

C. A person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and who is in a place where he or she has a right to be shall have no duty to retreat before using deadly force as provided for in this Section, and may stand his or her ground and meet force with force.

D. No finder of fact shall be permitted to consider the possibility of retreat as a factor in determining whether or not the person who used deadly force had a reasonable belief that deadly force was reasonable and apparently necessary to prevent a violent or forcible felony involving life or great bodily harm or to prevent the unlawful entry.

Ironically, if Coulter Dies, Landry’s Self-Defense Claim May Strengthen

Interestingly, LRS 20 may offer a more protective shield for Landry’s use of deadly force than does LRS 19.

The first section requires only that the defender reasonably believe he is in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm, and that the killing is necessary to save himself from that danger. Confronted by a 2AM intruder, who necessarily had already scaled a spiked metal fence, standing only a few feet away, while Landry stood in the doorway of his home, as the intruder apparently reached for a weapon—all of this would seem to meet the conditions of section (1) nicely.

The second section allows the killing for the purpose of preventing a forcible felony involving danger to life or great bodily harm by one who believes that such an offense is about to be committed. Burglary is routinely considered a “forcible felony”. If a jury believes that a reasonable person in Landry’s circumstances would have believed that the furtive figure in his driveway at 2AM after having scaled his locked, spiked metal fence, was about to commit an act of burglary, then Landry’s killing of Coulter was justified.

The third section permits the killing when committed against a person reasonably believed likely to use any unlawful force against a person in a dwelling—as Landry was—by a person attempting to commit a burglary of such dwelling. Again, if the jury believes that a reasonable person in Landry’s circumstances would have believed that the furtive figure in his driveway at 2AM after having scaled his locked, spiked metal fence, was about to commit an act of burglary, then Landry’s killing of Coulter was justified.

Facts In Evidence May Change Without Notice, Analysis Will Follow

Based on the facts currently available, it would appear that Landry has a robust legal claim to self-defense justification of the shooting. Of course, new facts may appear as the case develops, and we will adjust our legal analysis consistent with the development of new facts.

–Andrew, @LawSelfDefense


Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer in his third decade of practice, an attorney member of the Armed Citizen Legal Defense Network, and a Guest Instructor on the Law of Self Defense at the Sig Sauer Academy. He is the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition”.

Andrew  conducts Law of Self Defense Seminars all around the country, and he has also launched a series of LOSD State-Specific Supplements that dive deep into every relevant statute, jury instruction, and court case that defines the law of self-defense in a particular state.

You can follow Andrew on Twitter on @LawSelfDefense and using #LOSD2, on Facebook, and at his blog, The Law of Self Defense.