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Gazette Premium Content Deadly Colorado brawl is latest test of self-defense laws

By Sadie Gurman, Associated Press Updated: June 18, 2014 at 9:04 pm

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado prosecutor said he's frustrated that the state's "Make My Day" law prevents him from charging a man who killed an acquaintance during a drunken brawl that spilled into his home, becoming the latest test to self-defense gun laws nationwide.

The New Year's Day shooting involving "foolish, drunken children" likely was not what lawmakers had in mind when they adopted Colorado's law, Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said. It protects homeowners from prosecution for using deadly force when someone illegally enters their home and there's reason to believe that person will commit a crime.

Self-defense laws like Colorado's have received renewed attention recently after deadly shootings in Montana, Minnesota and Nevada.

After a six-month investigation, Hautzinger decided last week not to file charges against Joseph Hoskins, 36, in the death of Randy Cook, 47.

After a night of drinking at a party in the western Colorado city of Grand Junction, Cook and another man went to fight Hoskins outside his house. The fight moved inside and to Hoskins' bedroom, where the homeowner said Cook tried to snatch away his shotgun. Hoskins tackled Cook and shot him, according to Hoskins' account of the night, which was relayed to investigators through an attorney.

"These grown men, otherwise basically upstanding, law-abiding citizens, are acting like drunken children, and as a result, a good man got killed, and I can't hold anyone accountable for it in the criminal justice system," Hautzinger told The Associated Press.

Cook apparently had no involvement in an ongoing Facebook feud between Hoskins and the other man that had been brewing for days before they decided to square off, he said.

"It sticks in my craw to be unable to hold Joseph Hoskins accountable for his actions," Hautzinger said. "But it's not a very close legal call."

Hoskins did not return calls seeking comment, and his attorney, Terry Ryan, said he could not talk about the case.

Cook's brother, Stacey Cook, said aspects of the investigation remain undone. Prosecutors should have looked more closely at video evidence showing Cook walking away from the brawl and Hoskins following and taunting him before they fought, he said.

"I believe you have a right to protect your home and your loved ones. You don't have a right to taunt, set someone up, attack them ... and kill them and get away with it," Cook said. "That's not what this law was intended for."

Beginning with Florida in 2005, at least 22 states have expanded the self-defense principle known as the "castle doctrine," the premise that a person has the right to defend his or her home against attack. Colorado was not among them. The broadened laws say the doctrine can be applied to confrontations outside the home, with language such "stand your ground" and "no duty to retreat."

The laws make it easier for a person to shoot someone and avoid prosecution by saying they felt an imminent danger, which has increasingly placed the burden on prosecutors to prove self-defense did not occur, said Steven Jansen, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

"It has created an increase in investigation and an increase in frustration among prosecutors when trying to make decisions," he said. "You have to proactively anticipate that self-defense is going to be claimed."

The concept came under national scrutiny in the 2012 shooting of an unarmed Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was following him. George Zimmerman was acquitted last year after arguing self-defense.

But citing the law hasn't always been a surefire protection. Recent cases in Montana and Minnesota have involved homeowners who, fearing intruders, essentially set up traps and waited to kill them. A Montana homeowner who killed a 17-year-old German exchange student was charged with deliberate homicide, and a Minnesota retiree who shot two teenagers was convicted of premeditated murder. Last week in Nevada, a 73-year-old former schoolteacher was charged with murder in the shooting of two unarmed trespassers.

In the Grand Junction case, Hautzinger noted that Colorado's self-defense law does not consider whether a homeowner inflamed the situation that led to deadly force.

"I am very sorry that Colorado's criminal justice system does not have an adequate way to address this tragic, travesty of a situation," he wrote in a letter to Sheriff Stan Hilkey explaining his decision not to charge Hoskins.

Yet cases that challenge self-defense laws are an anomaly, said Dave Kopel, a law professor and research director at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver. More often, people truly defending themselves are protected by the law, he said.

"It's the trade-off for having clear rules for everyone in general," he said.

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