Taking the plea deal can be the best move even when the law favors your case
This Case of the Week is on an interesting defense of dwelling situation out of Louisiana that illustrates both that the legal risks for use of force are never zero, no matter how favorable the law appears to be to the defender, and also why a defender with the law on their side might nevertheless agree to plea to a felony conviction with a multi-year sentence.
Facts of the Case: Simple View
The basic facts of the case are that the victim, Ricky Moser, armed himself with an expandable baton, went to the dwelling where the defender, Kory Mattox, was present, attacked the resident who answered the front door, and unlawfully entered the residence to continue his attack on the defender. At that point, the defender shot and killed the victim with a 12 gauge shotgun. The defender was then charged with first-degree murder.
Law of the Case: Defense of Highly Defensible Property
Louisiana, where these events took place, has among the strongest defense of highly defensible property laws in the country. The relevant statute is §14:20. Justifiable homicide.
First, it includes not just one’s dwelling, but also one’s place of business and occupied motor vehicle within the definition of highly-defensible property, which is about as broad as that definition gets, anywhere.
Second, whereas many states allow for the use of deadly force against an intruder who has forcibly and unlawfully entered highly-defensible property, Louisiana does not impose the requirement that the entry was forcible, nor does it require a demonstration that there was an unlawful threat to human life. A merely unlawful entry into highly-defensible property is sufficient to justify the use of deadly defensive force. (One condition, not apparently relevant in this case, is that this justification is not available if the property is used for drug dealing.)
Defender Gets Charged with Murder Anyway: How?
Given the facts of this case—the victim here clearly had unlawfully entered the home, and indeed did so with the clear intent to attack those present—and the Louisiana highly defensible property law—that a mere unlawful entry into highly defensible property authorizes the use of deadly defensive force—how is it that the defender in this case found himself charged with first-degree murder for having killed the victim?
The difficulty for the defender is that he wasn’t just some innocent person sitting at home minding his own business when a violent lunatic tried to force himself into the defender’s home. (A more detailed reporting of the facts of this case can be found here.)
Rather, the defender, who was dating the victim’s estranged step-daughter and working in concert with daughter and the victim’s estranged wife, had been engaged in a high-intensity effort to drive the victim crazy. I write those words in the most literal sense, this campaign against the victim actually drove the victim to be institutionalized. It was shortly after the victim’s release a stay in a behavioral health center that the victim forced his way into the defender’s home and was killed.
In the few hours immediately prior to the killing, the defendant had escalated his taunting of the victim to a level involving scores of text messages and hundreds of phone calls.
It was this goading that apparently led to the intoxicated victim showing up in a rage at the defender’s home, leading to the killing of the victim.
And it was this goading that led the prosecution to bring a charge of first-degree murder against the defender, despite Louisiana’s potent defense of dwelling law described above. As reported in The Advocate news story, the prosecutor brought the murder charge on the legal theory that the defender had brought on his own trouble and therefore couldn’t rely on Louisiana’s defense of dwelling law (improperly labeled “stand your ground” law in the news story, of course).
The Legal Risk is Never Zero
Frankly, this doesn’t strike as a very compelling argument for the prosecutor, given the plain language of the Louisiana defense of dwelling statute, and in any case I would not think that the special provisions of the statute would be required for an acquittal in this case.
After all, had the victim attacked the defender with an expandable baton out in the street, much less in a dwelling, it would likely have constituted a straight up deadly force attack against which a straight-up legal defense of deadly force self-defense would likely be successful.
Sending mean words to someone via text and phone calls, as stupid as such conduct is, ought not strip you of your right to defend against a deadly force attack by that person. Under the facts and law in this case, I would think the defender would be in a very secure legal position with respect to a first-degree murder charge, in particular.
Nevertheless, that’s the charge with which the defender was hit, and that in turn reflects the simple reality that no matter how favorable the facts and law may be, the legal risk of a serious prosecution is never zero. The prosecution is free to use their discretion to bring even a weak case to trial, as they did here.
Make sure the stakes are worth the risks, folks.
Defendant Eventually Pleas to 10-year Manslaughter
Another interesting facet of this case is that the defendant ultimately reached a deal with prosecutors in which he avoided the first-degree murder trial in exchange for accepting a manslaughter plea carrying a 10-year-sentence.
Why do that, you might ask, when he has such a strong legal case to take to trial?
Well, lots of reasons. First, there’s always a chance, however slight, of a conviction at trial, and a conviction on first-degree murder would have seen the 26-year-old defendant spend the rest of his day in prison at hard labor. In Louisiana. A 10-year manslaughter sentence looks pretty good compared to that.
Second, the defendant wasn’t really looking at another ten years, because he has been sitting in jail awaiting trial for nearly 3 ½ years already, and that time will be credited to his 10-year-sentence.
Third, the defendant would be eligible for parole on a manslaughter conviction where he wouldn’t be under a first-degree murder conviction, and eligible for parole after serving about two-thirds of his sentence, a status he’ll achieve in only about another two to three years.
So, from the defendant’s perspective at this point in the process he’s looking at choosing between either agreeing to do another couple of years and getting out of jail before he’s 30 years old on the one hand, or a prospect of a life sentence at hard labor if he loses at trial.
Added to this as well is that the defendant may not have the resources one might like to mount an effective legal defense against an aggressive prosecutor in a life-sentence case. If you don’t have many resources to bring to the fight, especially compared to the prosecutor’s effectively unlimited resources, the prospects for a win diminish even with the law and facts on your side. (That’s a key reason to consider some form of self-defense “insurance,” folks, about which you can learn a lot more at lawofselfdefense.com/insurance.)
Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Law of Self Defense LLC
P.S. Be sure to join us TODAY for our new self-defense law Q&A show, broadcast LIVE at 3PM PST, “Calling the Shots,” hosted by Alien Gear Holsters on their Facebook page at: facebook.com/aliengearholsters. You can submit your questions for consideration for the show at: lawofselfdefense.com/cts. If you miss the LIVE show, you can catch the recorded replay at: lawofselfdefense.com/blog.
[Featured image consists of police mug shots of the defendant, Kory Mattox (l.) and the “victim”/intruder, Ricky Moser (r.)]DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.