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Jurors Should Have Considered Stand-Your-Ground Defense in Sawed-Off Shotgun Killing, Judges Rule

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A man convicted of killing his landlord’s adult son with a sawed-off shotgun is entitled to a new trial because the presiding judge failed to instruct jurors about a possible self-defense argument, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

A three-judge panel vacated the first-degree murder conviction of Ronald Wayne Vaughn Jr. in the 2017 shooting death of Gary Somerset. Vaughn was on the porch of the Lincoln County trailer he was renting and had the weapon when Somerset yelled “Let’s end this” and rushed at him, according to Tuesday’s opinion. The two and Somerset’s mother had been in a heated argument. Vaughn was sentenced in part to life in prison without parole.

Possessing a gun like the one Vaughn used —a Winchester .410 caliber shotgun with a sawed-off barrel that makes it easier to conceal and potentially more destructive — is a felony, and Vaughn was also convicted on that count.

The state’s “stand-your-ground” law says a person is justified in using force and has no duty to retreat when the person “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.” But it can’t be used in some occasions when that person was committing a felony at the time.

A state Supreme Court ruling after Vaughn’s 2021 trial narrowed that exception, saying there has to be a determination an injury wouldn’t have happened except for the person possessing that weapon.

Court of Appeals Judge Allegra Collins, while acknowledging that the trial judge lacked that state Supreme Court ruling, wrote in Tuesday’s prevailing opinion that the jury should have been instructed on the stand-your-ground provision.

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Somerset had been living temporarily in the home with Vaughn, and moments before the shooting, his mother gave Vaughn a notice to leave the trailer, which he ripped up, according to the opinion. Vaughn tried unsuccessfully to call 911 with his iPad, the opinion said, and from the porch told Somerset and his mother that they were the ones who needed to leave.

“The evidence viewed in the light most favorable to Defendant could have supported a jury determination that Defendant’s use of deadly force was justified and that there was no causal nexus between the disqualifying felony and his use of deadly force,” Collins wrote.

The prosecutor also told jurors erroneously that the stand-your-ground provision didn’t apply in the case, she added. Judges Hunter Murphy and Valerie Zachary agreed with her opinion.

The appeals panel found no error in his conviction for possessing of a weapon of mass death and destruction, which resulted in a prison sentence of up to almost 2 1/2 years. The judges ordered that Vaughn now be resentenced in light of his pre-trial confinement credits.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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