Baltimore Sun

Md.’s ‘duty to retreat’ standard clouds case

- By Darcy Costello, Lee O. Sanderlin, Alex Mann and Jessica Anderson

A squeegee worker’s defense attorneys called this month’s high-profile killing of a bat-wielding man an act of self-defense for a “14-year-old child paralyzed by fear.”

The 48-year-old Hampden man who was killed instigated the confrontat­ion, the attorneys said, when he parked his car, got out with a baseball bat and crossed several lanes of traffic near the Inner Harbor to confront a group of squeegee workers.

A motorist’s dashcam captured the moments before the shooting. It showed Timothy Reynolds, who had the bat, was walking away from the squeegee workers when they followed after him. Reynolds turned and chased them, with the bat raised. He swung once, missing one worker, and another worker threw what appeared to be a rock at his head, hitting him.

The third worker shot at Reynolds five times.

Police charged a 15-yearold, who was 14 at the time of the shooting, as an adult with first-degree murder.

Anytime someone is charged with intentiona­lly killing another person, a claim of self-defense can be raised. But it’s a different conversati­on in Maryland than a state like Florida, which has a “stand your ground” law.

Maryland is in a minority of states that has preserved a “duty to retreat” standard from English common law. The state’s expectatio­n, which largely comes from a body of court decisions rather than the legislatur­e or criminal code, lays out that a person threatened in public with deadly force is expected to retreat before resorting to it.Too little informatio­n

about the nature of the squeegee shooting has been released for a full analysis of possible legal defenses, and authoritie­s have declined to discuss in detail how the encounter unfolded.

However, J. Wyndal Gordon, the teen’s attorney, said at a July 15 news conference that the case is defensible.

“Someone wielding a bat, we would believe, is definitely deadly force, and the law allows deadly force to be met with deadly force,” Gordon said. “We understand the duty to retreat, but there is no duty when it is unsafe or the avenue to escape is unknown.”

Although few homicides are ruled justifiabl­e, the race of the parties can play a role in such outcomes. A 2013 Urban Institute analysis of FBI homicide data found that killings where the defendant was white and the victim was Black are 10 times more likely to be ruled justified than if the roles are reversed.

In this case, the teen defendant is Black and the deceased is white.

“You’d have to be blind to suggest that race doesn’t matter,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. “If this case involved 14- and 15-year-old white kids being threatened by a Black man with a baseball bat, I think the public conversati­on would be very different. The sad truth is, race does matter, and it affects every aspect of the criminal justice system.”

The Baltimore Sun spoke with law professors and criminal defense attorneys about what has to be proved to raise a successful self-defense — and how the “duty to retreat” might be a factor.

‘Reasonable force’: In Maryland, people are allowed to defend themselves against attackers with “reasonable force” so long as they were not the initial aggressor, said Peter O’Neill, an Anne Arundel County defense attorney who has won several acquittals by arguing self-defense for clients.

In cases where the person claiming self-defense killed someone, the use of deadly force is only justified if the person establishe­s the attacker was using deadly force or believed their life was in danger, he said. The calculus is similar if the self-defense claim is applied to a situation where force was used to defend others.

Warren Brown, another attorney for the teen, said at the news conference that his client is 5-foot-6, and 126 pounds — “a small child,” while Reynolds was over 6 feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, and wielded a bat.

What’s considered reasonable force extends to the duty to retreat, O’Neill said: If you’re in a situation where you’re outside and have free movement, and it’s a “reasonable option” you could escape, then you have an obligation to remove yourself.

“You don’t have an obligation if the individual who is the aggressor is placing you in a situation where if you were to turn back or if you were to retreat, you would be placing yourself in danger,” O’Neill said.

In Maryland, if an unreasonab­le amount of force is used, people still can claim self-defense to lessen the charges, just not to absolve themselves, O’Neill said.

It’s a “substantia­l minority” of states that expect an individual to retreat before using deadly force in a public place, said David Gray, the Jacob A. France professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

Instead, Gray said, the prevailing view among states is the “stand your ground” concept, which he said goes back to an “imagined Old West sensibilit­y.” In cases around those states’ statutes, he said, “there is a recognitio­n ... that Americans have a different view of manliness and standing up for yourself than those sort of more delicate Brits.”

Florida is a good example: The state’s statute lays out that if an individual starts a nonviolent confrontat­ion and someone responds with a threat of deadly force or with deadly force, then the individual has a “perfect” right of self-defense because of that escalation, Gray said.

At the news conference, Gordon said: “I do believe that the shooter believed, honestly and reasonably, that he was in imminent or immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury.”

The defense team will work to have the charges reduced and the case moved to juvenile court, Gordon said.

“We do not believe this is a first-degree murder case,” he said. “We do not believe this is a second-degree murder case.”

Perfect vs. imperfect: Additional­ly, Gordon believes the evidence in the case will show a “perfect self-defense,” he said.

In a first-degree murder case, if the case doesn’t reach a “perfect” self-defense standard, an imperfect self-defense claim could mitigate the crime and lead to a lesser conviction, such as manslaught­er.

When there is a question about whether a person acted in self-defense or in defense of others, prosecutor­s have to prove there was nothing defensive about the accused’s actions to win a murder conviction.

“There’s a fine line between imperfect self-defense and perfect self-defense,” said Joe Murtha, a criminal defense attorney and former Howard County prosecutor.

If a baseball bat was about to strike someone’s head, Murtha said that likely would be perfect self-defense. If someone comes up with a bat and is 5 feet away, but the individual knows the person has attacked people before, that could be an imperfect self-defense, he said.

If the defense can prove an imperfect self-defense, a jury should acquit the defendant of murder but convict them of voluntary manslaught­er, according to jury instructio­ns in previous cases in Maryland. The maximum sentence for an adult convicted of voluntary manslaught­er is 10 years imprisonme­nt, according to state sentencing guidelines.

Gray, the law professor, said the public is still learning all the facts about the killing downtown. But based on what’s been reported so far, he sees two possible imperfecti­ons in a self-defense claim.

One would be if the squeegee worker started it. If the situation started with a physical threat or if he initiated a physical confrontat­ion, and it escalated from there, the defendant couldn’t make perfect a self-defense claim, Gray said. Under Maryland law, words are not enough to warrant a physical response.

The other would be a failure to escape, Gray said. That would apply if the man with the bat was the initial aggressor, threatened death or bodily harm, and the squeegee worker felt it was self-defense. In that case, a perfect self-defense would require him to show “either there was no safe avenue of escape, or that if there was, he wasn’t aware of it and there wasn’t a real, reasonable opportunit­y to use it,” Gray said.

In other words, if evidence shows Reynolds was leaving and no longer a threat, or that the squeegee workers were the original provocateu­rs, “then that’s an issue,” Jaros said.

“For self-defense, the facts of whether the guy was retreating or was an immediate threat will all come down to what actually happened,” Jaros said.

Gordon said his client was “petrified, paralyzed by fear ... if this man is still coming at you and you’re holding a gun and you’re 3 to 4 feet away from the curb, and you don’t really know where it is, that makes it unsafe.”

The question of age: There’s more to the legal aspects of the case than just analyzing whether or not the squeegee worker acted perfectly in self-defense, law professors said, namely the defendant’s age.

What is objectivel­y reasonable to a 50-year-old law professor is different from what a 14-year-old child might think.

“The question of how we evaluate this case is whether it’s appropriat­e to charge this child as an adult,” said Jaros.

The squeegee worker’s defense attorneys agree. Gordon described his client as “a child,” who, he said, “doesn’t really know how to respond to that level of force, intimidati­on.”

The boy’s attorneys called the first-degree murder charge an overreach. If the state’s attorney’s office reduced the charges, they said, the case could be moved to juvenile court, which provides lighter sentences and emphasizes rehabilita­tion.

The teen’s family members said at the news conference that he is a good kid who enjoys reading. They questioned why “a grown man” would come after the group with a bat.

To Gray, an underlying issue worth examining is the culture of violence in Baltimore and, more broadly, across the United States.

This moment shouldn’t just be about “pure, technical criminal law inquiry.” It should feature a broader conversati­on about what kinds of norms and rules society has about engagement­s between strangers and the use and risk of violence, he said.

There were a lot of “off ramps here where nobody dies, and nobody took any of those off ramps.”

“We resort to violence and deadly force, it seems to me, at the drop of a hat, like it’s something that people casually think about and sometimes all too casually carry out,” Gray said. “It’s an important conversati­on that goes beyond, ‘Hey, let’s get guns off the street.’ It’s a conversati­on about what kind of world we want to live in.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States