A course on legitimate self-defense was the top draw at the ninth annual People’s Law School, pulling in about a third of the 300 attendees Saturday morning at Baylor Law School.
The one-hour course, presented twice by Waco criminal defense attorney Susan Johnston, was titled “Stand Your Ground, Self-Defense and the Castle Doctrine.”
Johnston, a former assistant district attorney who still does some special prosecutions with her attorney husband, Bill, emphasized again and again that the best reference a person in danger has is common sense.
She said laws lumped together in the informal concepts “stand your ground” and “the castle doctrine” — reflecting the saying “A man’s home is his castle” — do not incorporate either term.
They attempt to describe circumstances where the use of deadly force in self-defense or the defense of property is justified.
The half-day People’s Law School offered classes on 18 subjects, many presented twice over the course of three hours so that each attendee could take three classes.
Organizer Pat Wilson, a Baylor law professor, said many attendees were walk-ins who had not registered early, but attendance was more than the 250 recorded last year. The program is free to the public.
Susan Johnston punctuated her talk with levity such as a slide of a man standing with a shotgun over a dead Easter Bunny, saying how threatened he had felt.
But she hammered home the point that “unless you’re in fear for your life, don’t kill someone. Rather than face the horrible experience of being prosecuted, it’s better not to do it. Do what you have to do, but don’t use amateur interpretations of the law to do what you want.”
She recalled a case she prosecuted involving a man convicted of manslaughter in the death of a 14-year-old intruder he held captive for several hours while he telephoned friends and relatives about his intention to shoot the teen.
In the end, the man poked the youth with a gun and claimed it went off accidentally, killing him.
“The jury could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the man didn’t intend to shoot the child, but they did give him the maximum sentence for the second-degree felony of manslaughter, 20 years,” Johnston said.
She emphasized that each case is different, but, in general, use of deadly force is justifiable only if it’s immediately necessary to prevent felonies including arson, robbery or burglary.
Calling police should be the first line of defense if at all feasible, she said. And she voiced the opinion that no inanimate object is worth a human life.
“Reason and common sense about whether force is necessary should always be the rule,” she said.
After the sessions, Dawn Chumak, of Eddy, said she thought the presentation was “very informative,” but she would have liked to have seen more detailed information about topics such as using force in the defense of others.
Richard Kirk, of Waco, said he liked the emphasis on common sense and reason, and he appreciated the emphasis that the phrase “stand your ground” does not appear in the law.
He said he thinks the school should expand future People’s Law Schools to cover an entire day or possibly a whole weekend, given the number of courses offered and the number of people interested.
The 18 courses this year covered real estate sales, consumer law, the criminal justice system, debt collection, elder law, employment law, family law, intellectual property, health care, residential rentals, privacy, law school applications, church and state issues, small claims, veterans rights and estate planning.
All courses are taught by area attorneys. A flier said, “The purpose of this program is to help make the law ‘user friendly’ and to educate consumers about their legal rights.”