16-year-old Ralph Yarl was supposed to pick up his twin brothers from a house he hadn’t been to before, but went to the wrong address by mistake. The address he ended up at was a house owned by 84-year-old Andrew Lester. Details of exactly what happened next are a little murky, but one thing is clear: Lester shot Ralph in the head, and again in the arm.
Ralph is Black. Lester is white.
Fortunately, Ralph is expected to make a full recovery. Lester has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree assault and armed criminal action, and it seems he intends to claim self-defense. But if Lester thinks he had the legal right to shoot Ralph, he has another thing coming.
On Thursday, April 13, around 10 p.m., Ralph was sent to pick up his younger brothers at a house on the northern edge of Kansas City, Missouri. By mistake, he went to NE 115th Street instead of NE 115th Terrace—just a block away. Andrew Lester answered the door. He was holding a .32 caliber revolver.
Stories vary about what happened next. According to the criminal complaint, Lester told the police that he saw a Black male “pulling on the exterior storm door handle” and that he believed that Ralph was attempting to break into his house. Lester told investigators that he was “scared to death” by Ralph’s size and his own inability to defend himself at his advanced age.
But Ralph’s version of events contradicts Lester’s. The teenager told a detective that he only rang the doorbell and did not pull on the door at all. And while the prosecutor said there was no indication that any words were exchanged, Ralph reported to the police that Lester said, “Don’t come around here.”
Lester then shot at Ralph twice through the glass door. Ralph was hit in the forehead and the right arm. A neighbor told CNN that while they didn’t hear the shooting, upon going outside, they found Ralph laying in the street, surrounded by neighbors. He was taken to the hospital, where he received medical care.
Lester’s Release and Public Outcry
Kansas City police arrested Lester shortly before midnight the same day, but released him less than two hours later, early Friday. Over the weekend, anger spread throughout the community. On Sunday, protestors marched on Lester’s home. Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves acknowledged the outcry in a news conference. Ralph was released from the hospital Sunday evening.
The teenager’s family, along with his lawyers, Ben Crump and S. Lee Merritt, criticized the authorities for releasing Lester. In a joint statement on Sunday, the attorneys wrote: “There can be no excuse for the release of this armed and dangerous suspect after admitting to shooting an unarmed, nonthreatening and defenseless teenager that rang his doorbell.” They directed interested donors to a GoFundMe page created by Ralph’s aunt—which has already surpassed its $2.5 million goal by nearly a million dollars.
On Monday, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who is Black, said that he felt “heartbroken and angry” about the situation. “You’ve heard about all the other issues that Black people confront in life,” he added. “Can you not knock on the door while Black? It’s almost like you can’t exist.” That evening, President Biden spoke to Ralph on the phone and wished him a swift recovery.
Meanwhile, Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson announced that Lester had been charged with “armed criminal action” and “first-degree assault.” In Missouri, armed criminal action carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, while first-degree assault has a maximum of life imprisonment. Although Thompson said that “there was a racial component to the case,” Lester has not been charged with a hate crime, but he has been arrested for the other charges.
“Stand Your Ground” Defense? Seriously?
According to Ralph’s lawyers, Lester admitted to shooting Ralph. It seems that he is thus trying to evade conviction by raising the shield of self-defense. Unfortunately for him, that probably won’t fly.
On one hand, Missouri is a “stand your ground” state. That means that if someone poses a lethal threat to you, you are under no duty to try retreating to safety as a first resort before using deadly force to protect yourself. If you kill your attacker in the process of defending yourself, you could avoid a criminal conviction based on a self-defense theory.
But in order to get the protection of self-defense in a stand-your-ground state, your fear of death or serious bodily harm must be “objectively reasonable.” And this is where Lester runs into trouble with his legal defense.
Let’s take him at his word. Say Lester was afraid of Ralph and that Ralph pulled on the exterior door handle at 10:00 at night (although that’s disputed). A jury would have to decide whether this is enough to give rise to an objectively reasonable belief that Ralph posed a threat to Lester.
But a jury is unlikely to agree that the average, reasonable person in Lester’s shoes would find the situation threatening. Ralph may be big, but he’s still a kid. He’s in high school. He wasn’t making threatening moves, at least none that Lester told the police about. At most, Ralph opened a door. And finally—we must emphasize—Ralph was unarmed!
Self-Defense Won’t Fly
We can’t get into Lester’s head. He may have sincerely been afraid of Ralph. If so, that’s a sad, telling commentary about life in America for a Black teen. But that’s a different issue altogether.
The point is, no matter how genuinely afraid Lester may have been, his fear was merely subjective; it wasn’t objectively reasonable. Ralph posed no threat to him, let alone the level of threat required to claim self-defense under the law. Lester’s stand-your-ground Hail Mary isn’t going to work.
We wish Ralph a swift recovery!
Stand Your Ground Laws (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
States That Have Stand Your Ground Laws (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
Trayvon Martin: A Timeline and What’s Next (FindLaw’s Law and Daily Life Blog)
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