When James Stapleton was arrested following a shootout in Las Vegas Valley’s northside, he didn’t realize he would add fuel to the conversational fire that is raging in the country about justifiable homicide.

Officers arrived in the 5800 block of Westport Circle and discovered two men with gunshot wounds.  Both were taken to UMC Trauma where Stapleton was treated for non-life threatening injuries.

According to a police spokesman, the other man is not expected to live.

Law enforcement’s reports indicate the two men were neighbors and had been involved in an ongoing dispute. During the recent incident, the victim was backing his car out of his driveway when he and Stapleton got into an argument. Shots were traded, and both men were wounded.

Stapleton, who was transported to the Clark County Detention Center after receiving medical attention, was indicted for attempted murder and two charges of shooting at an occupied vehicle.

“If I were the defendant’s lawyer, I would be arguing for self-defense. There seem to be enough facts here to make out a claim of self-defense,” said Nick Wooldridge of LV Criminal Defense – a prominent criminal defense firm in Nevada.


Definition of Homicide

Homicide is defined as the unlawful killing of another human.

The legal classification of homicide comprises several types of acts including intentional offenses like murder and involuntary acts such as manslaughter. Each type of crime carries different legal consequences. Further, the types of defense available for each crime varies depending on the nature of the crime.

“Homicide is often a glorified charge of battery and has three defenses. One, it wasn’t me, some other guy did it; two it was an accident, and three, self-defense,” said Wooldridge.

Closely connected to the self-defense argument is what is known as “Castle Doctrine.”  Derived from the saying, “A man’s home is his castle,” many defense attorneys are pointing to the doctrine when defending someone accused of homicide. But even the Castle Doctrine isn’t always cut-and-dried.


Castle Doctrine

The ambiguity of Castle Doctrine can be illustrated by a case in Mississippi.

Justin Thomas shot and killed Dexter Harrison in Hattiesburg in 2008. According to witnesses, a gang was assaulting Justin Buckner, Thomas’ friend, outside of the.

When Thomas fired two shots into the air, the gang forgot about Buckner and turned on Thomas, who got into his car. The group surrounded the car and began hitting it with their fists and sticks. Thomas fired two shots out of the vehicle, and both bullets hit Harris and killed him.


One of the country’s broadest Castle Doctrine laws was passed by the Mississippi Legislature in 2006. Mississippians were given much leeway in legal reasoning to use deadly force.

The legislation set several key provisions stating when Mississippi residents can use deadly force.

One criterion is location: A person can rely on the law if they are inside,  or, in immediate proximity, of a vehicle, a dwelling or a business. A dwelling doesn’t just apply to an individual’s home. It can refer to any place with a roof that they plan to occupy for at least one night — even a tent.

Second, the laws require that the person who uses deadly force must do so if they believe that someone is about to cause harm or to commit any felony upon him.”

Thomas’ attorney said that Thomas had a defense under the statute; two juries failed to agree. In April 2009, a jury found Thomas guilty of manslaughter when the judge dismissed Thomas’ effort to claim blamelessness based on the state’s Castle Doctrine. Thomas was sent to prison for 15 years.

Thomas’ conviction was overturned in August 2011. The Mississippi Appeals Court ruled the lower court should have allowed the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine defense.

Thomas went back to trial for a second time, and the court declared a mistrial. A third trial also ended in a hung jury and no decision.

Despite best efforts by state lawmakers to make the Castle Doctrine more black and white, many gray areas still exist. The determination of justifiable or unjustifiable homicide is left up to police, juries and judges.


With all of the gray areas, the conversation about what constitutes justifiable homicide will continue.

Legally, assuming there are no witnesses, the paradigm can become very paradoxical. Assuming that one person is killed, there isn’t anyone around to assert who was the aggressor and what reaction what have been appropriate.

Often, the “winner of the fight” is way more likely to win the legal argument. Dead people are not very articulate.


Jerry Nelson is an internationally known photojournalist who turns his camera — and pen — on social justice issues globally.  When not traveling, Jerry lives in Buenos Aires with his Argentine wife, Ale.  Email him today at jandrewnelson2@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.