Saturday, April 13, 2024

Shot in the back – legally. State reps talk ‘Castle Doctrine’

North Carolina law allows you to protect yourself and your home. But how far can you go?

Video: District Attorney Ben David explaining how Stephen Roger Hughes II was protected under state law after he shot Marine Corporal Edwin Estrada in the back of the head.

WILMINGTON – Last year a young Marine Corporal named Edwin Maurice Estrada was shot and killed in downtown Wilmington. Recently released autopsy results describe the exact path of the fatal bullet that struck Estrada from behind, but North Carolina state law protects Stephen Rogers Hughes II, the man who fired that bullet. Now, state officials and representatives are weighing in on those defense of habitation laws, known as “Castle doctrine.”

At a press conference earlier this year, District Attorney Ben David explained at length the prosecution’s investigation into Hughes and how, ultimately, the state’s defense of habitation laws – known colloquially as Castle Doctrine – legally justified the shooting.

North Carolina’s laws were broadened in 2011, David pointed out, removing the requirement to retreat if possible, and allowing the use of lethal force to protect not only residences but places of business or vehicles (see G.S. 14-51.2, 14-51.3, and 14-51.4).

You can watch the complete conference and get details of the case here: DA not charging the man who shot and killed Marine Corporal Edwin Estrada, citing state’s self-defense laws

David called the incident a cautionary tale, laying responsibility on both Estrada and Hughes:

“Those who wander while highly intoxicated may be perceived as a threat and not only lose the protection of the laws, but may lose their very lives. Those who resort to self-help rather than calling 911 can create a situation that, while legally excused, turns unnecessarily fatal. Everyone should wish for a different outcome with the benefit of hindsight,” David said.

In the aftermath of the press conference, questions about the case remained. One of them was: how could the law allow the killing of an unarmed man? Another: if the law does allow it, is it time to revisit that legislation?

An unarmed man, shot in the back

Estrada’s autopsy is embedded at the bottom of this article.

According to autopsy results, Estrada was shot twice. The first bullet struck him in the cheek, traveling through the soft tissue of his face and neck, exiting his neck. According to David, the medical examiner told prosecutors “this wound would not have been a debilitating injury.”

The second bullet, fired three seconds later, struck Estrada in the back.

According to the autopsy results, the bullet grazed Estrada’s upper back at a very shallow angle – nearly parallel to his back – and left a shallow, roughly three-inch wound. The bullet then struck the left side of Estrada’s lower neck, traveling through his skull and coming to rest under the skin on the front right part of head.

During the press conference, David said that Hughes told prosecutors he felt his life was threatened when Estrada lunged at him.

The autopsy report notes that there was no soot or stippling – damage to the skin caused by high-velocity particles of gunpowder – to indicate Estrada was shot at close range.

The path of the bullet seems to suggest that Estrada was bent over or prone – facing away from Hughes – and was shot from behind.

During the press conference, David would not speculate on the exact trajectories of the bullets based on Estrada’s wounds, or extrapolate the details of the shooting from them. He said that Hughes told investigators he did not know where he was shooting because of the low light level.

David did call the idea that Hughes had shot Estrada in the back a “rational inference.”

Former police officer Stephen Roger Hughes II admitted to shooting Marine Corporal Edwin Estrada in an November incident that left the young Marine dead. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY STEVE FULLER - ELLSWORTH AMERICAN)
Former police officer Stephen Roger Hughes II admitted to shooting Marine Corporal Edwin Estrada in a November incident that left the young Marine dead. Hughes was well versed in the specifics of North Carolina’s defense of habitation laws. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY STEVE FULLER – ELLSWORTH AMERICAN)

However, in the end, David said there was no way to refute Hughes testimony – which was perfectly consistent with a legal use of lethal force under Castle Doctrine. There was no surveillance, no one else present. There were only two people who know what happened, and one of them was killed.

Thus, despite the implication of the now-public autopsy report, David did not consider Hughes to have violated Castle Doctrine, which authorizes people to use force necessary to defend themselves but no excessive force beyond that.

Castle Doctrine and excessive force

The North Carolina Attorney General’s office has not reviewed the Estrada case, and Attorney General Josh Stein did not comment on the specifics. However, according to Spokeswoman Laura Brewer, “the AG voted against that law as a state senator. While he supports people’s right to protect themselves in their homes, he was concerned that the law was written too expansively.”

State Representatives Deb Butler and Holly Grange, along with State Senator Michael Lee, offered their thoughts on Castle Doctrine.

Butler said she understood and supported the need for Castle Doctrine, adding that the law contained important limitations.

“You can only use that force that is necessary to repel the threat against you. And that means stopping when the threat is gone,” Butler said.

Butler compared the concern over Castle Doctrine to the issue of lethal force used in some controversial police shootings; she said there were times law enforcement clearly needed to use force, and used it appropriately. However, she said the excessive use of force is bound to strike the public as wrong.

“A kid or whomever flees and gets shot in the back, it rightly causes us to say, ‘wait a minute – that’s an inappropriate response when someone is fleeing.’ And the same would be true in your home. You know, if they’re in your house brandishing a gun and you shoot them that’s one thing, but if they’re running through the sliding glass door and they’re halfway across the backyard and you shoot them in the back then it’s not OK,” Butler said.

State Senator Michael Lee shared a similar sentiment.

“If you don’t focus on the language of this law there can be some very tragic results… this language is not that someone comes in your house and you just shoot them,” Lee said. “The key is, at least in the statute, is that you’re using defensive force. You’re not shooting someone in the back as they’re running out of your house.”

Edwin Mauricio Estrada, an active duty Marine, was shot and killed by Stephen Roger Hughes II on November 19, 2017. (Port City Daily photo | FILE)
Edwin Mauricio Estrada, an active duty Marine, was shot and killed by Stephen Roger Hughes II on November 19, 2017. (Port City Daily photo | FILE)

Representative Grange said she understood the public’s emotional reaction to the Estrada killing, but that the Castle Doctrine was not an issue.

“I don’t think it’s too broad. I think our Castle Doctrine, it’s in line with other states. In this situation it was terribly unfortunate and the fact that it was a military person makes it a lot more emotional – I think the fact that it was a military person was what bothered most people,” Grange said.

Grange added that, as the mother of an active duty servicemember, she was concerned that Estrada had been left alone.

“I tell my son, when he’s out on leave – it’s the buddy system,” Grange said. “What bothers me more than anything is that this guy, if he was in that bad of shape, there have been a buddy, he should have had someone watching out for him.”

Tweaking Castle Doctrine?

Lee said that proposed changes to Castle Doctrine should come from law enforcement, specifically the District Attorney’s offices.

“This tragic incident—is there a way to change the law to prevent something like this in the future? I’d say the way would be the district attorney, since this is what they do every day, should come to the legislators and say, ‘this is what has happened, and we need to tweak the law so that we as law enforcement can protect the general public.” Lee said.

“Laws can always be tweaked. If there’s something the drafters (of the defense of habitation laws) didn’t think of, something that didn’t occur to them, it can always change,” Lee added.

Butler said she didn’t believe there would be any changes to Castle Doctrine.

“I don’t think with the current makeup of the General Assembly that it’s something you’re going to see,” Butler said.

Butler added that it was important to keep in mind that the law had to balance the public safety with the rights of the accused.

“People will suggest something like this is not correct until they’re on the other end of it. People are all about law and order and punishment until they’re on other end of it,” Butler said.

Edwin Estrada Autopsy by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

District Attorney Ben David’s Statement on Edwin Estrada Killing by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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