Family Feud Turns Deadly

Regular readers will know how much we at the USCCA stress avoiding trouble before things get out of hand. In my last column, I suggested learning who your neighbors are and how they think about you when it comes to your guns. But a Georgia court case that was finalized last week illustrates just how complicated and ugly things can get when the conflict is within your own family.

The background details behind the deadly incident are even more disturbing. From Douglas County Judge Andy Spivey’s ruling:

The decedent, Lea Merritt, and her girlfriend, Christy McGovern, lived in a small camper in the front yard of the property. Lea Merritt’s past behavior, including an extensive history of drug use and violence toward both [mother] Deborah Merritt and [stepfather Steve] Barrett, was such that she was not allowed in her mother’s home. She had, however, been allowed to place the camper on the property. [Emphasis ours]

By now, you’re probably asking yourself (as I did), if someone was so dangerous that you wouldn’t let her in your house, why in heaven’s name would you allow her in your yard? The rational answer is: You shouldn’t. But family matters are often irrational.

In the argument during which she first attacked Caleb Barrett’s father, “Lea Merritt armed herself with an axe” and went to “confront her mother.” After retrieving a Springfield XD-9 from his truck,

Barrett pointed the pistol at Merritt and told her to put the axe down. He repeated this command multiple times. Merritt refused to do so. Instead, she said, ‘I ain’t scared of you,’ or words to that effect, turned away from Deborah Merritt, and began approaching Caleb Barrett. (sic) After she took one or two steps, Barrett fired a single shot. That shot proved fatal. Barrett ran inside, retrieved the home phone and called 911.

Seems like a pretty solid case of self-defense. As a result, Douglas County Superior Court Judge Andy Spivey issued his ruling on the murder charges against Caleb Barrett on Tuesday afternoon, November 7, dismissing the murder indictment. From the court document:

Based upon a preponderance of evidence standard, the court finds that the defendant was reasonably justified in standing his ground and shooting Lea Merritt as a matter of self-defense and defense of others.

Good news for the defendant. But of particular interest to us was this comment by the judge in which he emphasizes a crucial, but often overlooked, principle of self-defense common law: That one cannot provoke a conflict, then claim the right to use deadly force:

It is abundantly clear to the court that the alleged victim, [Barrett’s sister, Lea] Merritt, was the first aggressor in his case. It is likewise that the defendant did not engage in any provocation such as might have deprived him of the right of self-defense. [Emphasis ours]

This is important to remember the next time you’re tempted to “flip off” another driver or start an argument over something trivial. It could derail your claim of self-defense.

This particular case also illustrates how difficult family situations can be. While it’s relatively simple to “walk away” from strangers (or avoid obnoxious neighbors), it can be more difficult to deal with family members.

That being said, when violence, or threats of violence, appear, it is imperative to take whatever steps necessary to deal with problems before they escalate into a tragedy. Even when it’s “all in the family.”

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