How ‘Stand Your Ground’ Erodes a Homicide Probe

The relaxed definition of self-defense in dozens of state laws helps shooters get away with otherwise avoidable killing

How ‘Stand Your Ground’ Erodes a Homicide Probe
Demonstrators hold up signs representing the 11,400 victims of gun violence discussed by congressional members on June 20, 2019 / Tom Brenner / Getty Images

In the early hours of Oct. 11, 2021, in the rural town of Martindale, Texas, Terry Turner, a 65-year-old local, shot and killed an unarmed man who was sitting in a vehicle. Turner then called 911 and said he just “shot a guy,” claiming his victim had a gun.

The victim was 31-year-old Moroccan national and U.S. immigrant Adil Dghoughi, a recent business school graduate who was in the midst of looking for a job while moonlighting as an Uber driver. He died from a bullet wound to the head. He also had a defensive wound to his left hand, as if he had raised it to protect himself before he was shot through the driver’s-side window at close range.

Dghoughi had no gun, according to police who arrived at the scene. He was pronounced dead later that morning at the hospital.

Local authorities did not immediately arrest Turner, who has a prior conviction for committing larceny decades earlier, according to documents found by New Lines. Instead, they relinquished within hours of the shooting what was possibly one of the most important pieces of evidence in this case: the car in which Dghoughi was shot, still covered with his fresh blood. Caldwell County deputies had impounded it after arriving at the scene of the shooting, but they returned it to its owner, Sarah Todd, who was Dghoughi’s girlfriend, before the day’s end in a move that has shocked some observers.

“I’m stunned that she got it back in 12 hours,” said Melba Pearson, the Florida-based co-chair of the American Bar Association Prosecution Function Committee and a former homicide prosecutor. “Because you don’t know what’s going to be relevant later down the line. You take pictures and preserve evidence as best you can. But when I was prosecutor, I’d go to the yard and look at the car — understand the angle of the bullet. Where did it hit? What side was it on? What kind of car was it? Was it a truck? So many different variables that you need to understand to present the case effectively to the jury.”

Even Turner’s defense attorney found cause for raised eyebrows. Asked during a phone interview if he thought it was unusual for the police to return evidence so quickly to its owner, he said: “That’s somewhat surprising, yes.” And when asked whether he thought this could help his client at trial, he said: “It may.”

After relinquishing key evidence, the Caldwell County deputies then launched an investigation into the victim’s background, issuing six search warrants to look into Dghoughi’s Google searches, social media accounts and related metadata, documents obtained by New Lines show.

The police also breached data on the victim’s phone without obtaining a search warrant, citing a law that applies to “abandoned property.”

As Dghoughi’s brother Othman struggled to navigate the justice system in Texas, the police grilled him on the victim’s character and habits.

“Did he like women?” Othman recalled one detective asking him in the early days of the investigation. “They asked how much Adil drank [and] if he got angry when he drank. They were trying to find something bad, to paint his image as someone who gets angry.”

They also warned Othman that if he continued to tell his story to the media, which he did early on because he felt the police were indifferent to seeking justice for his brother, the case would “be moved to another county where people are racist,” he said.

The only search warrant issued for the suspect was to retrieve from his house the gun used in the shooting, a gun for which Turner has no permit, according to publicly available records. In any event, the lack of a permit does not matter in Texas, where almost anyone is allowed to possess a firearm in their home.

Local authorities also drew a blood sample from Dghoughi’s body for a toxicology report but did not draw one from the suspect to rule out any intoxication, according to people familiar with the investigation. (This, too, would not be unusual if the police arriving at the scene determined that Turner appeared to be of sound mind.)

Then it took a grand jury four additional months to indict Turner on a first-degree murder charge. Once arrested, Turner was released a couple of hours later on $150,000 bail with no restrictions on travel or gun possession. (By contrast, in the same county in a separate murder case that occurred in September, where 69-year-old Dean Katherine Harris Storch shot her senior citizen husband, bail was initially set at $1 million before it was reduced to $200,000.)

A trial date for Turner has not yet been set, but the parties are scheduled for a pretrial hearing on July 5.

At the heart of this case is the expansion of “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws, which debuted in a limited way in 1994 in Utah before the National Rifle Association (NRA) succeeded in pushing it through legislation in 2005 in Florida. The American Bar Association has called them laws with a “low-cost license to kill.”

One of the first cases tried under these laws was that of George Zimmerman in Florida. Zimmerman was an armed civilian on voluntary neighborhood patrol duty when, shortly after 7 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2012, he called 911 to report that he had seen someone he deemed to be “suspicious.” It was Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old who was visiting family in the area. He was walking back from the store eating Skittles when Zimmerman fatally shot him. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty.

Since then, SYG has become law in 30 states, a development that has seen a marked rise in homicide statistics throughout these states.

“‘Stand Your Ground’ has distorted the law of self-defense,” Ari Freilich, state policy director at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told New Lines during a phone interview. He added that before SYG, self-defense laws had traditionally made clear that taking a human life was not justified if a person could have safely de-escalated the situation by stepping away from a confrontation. In other words, there was a “duty to de-escalate and withdraw if you can do so safely to avoid any threat of violence,” Freilich said.

The exception to this was the “duty to de-escalate” afforded to people by the “Castle Doctrine,” which gives someone at home the right to use lethal force against an intruder, even if there was a possibility to de-escalate tension by, say, fleeing through the backdoor.

But then came SYG laws, which expanded this concept to open-air and public spaces, thus removing the traditional “duty to de-escalate” altogether. These laws declare that people who perceive that they are facing a threat of harm have “an affirmative right to stand their ground.”

“On the one hand, that’s a vague enough standard to allow highly uneven application from case to case, but it sends an unmistakable signal that the scales of justice are being reweighted toward killing. That more people should shoot first and ask questions later,” Freilich said.

It is this “signaling” aspect of the law that plays a detrimental factor in pushing some people to use lethal force when they would not have necessarily done so because they were not under imminent threat. At trial, where race often plays a significant factor, defendants in Florida were twice as likely to be convicted in cases involving white victims than they were in cases with victims of color, according to a 2015 study published in Harvard’s Social Science & Medicine journal.

“If you’re a Black person who killed a white person under SYG, it’s probably not going to end well for you — statistically speaking,” said Pearson, who heads the National Black Prosecutors Association Foundation. “The NRA views gun ownership as white privilege. They haven’t done much to support brown or Black gun owners. They’ve been silent.”

She cited as an example the case of then 29-year-old Marissa Alexander, a Black mother of three who on July 31, 2010, returned to the home she shared with her estranged husband to collect some belongings days after giving birth to their baby girl. The husband, who had been arrested three times on charges of domestic violence, showed up unannounced and threatened to kill her, according to her statement. So she reached for her gun and fired a warning shot, causing no bodily injury. She was later charged with aggravated assault and faced a 20-year prison sentence despite clear evidence of being the victim of prior domestic violence.

“Why does she not get the right to stand her ground?” Pearson questioned.

Dghoughi’s family wonders whether there was a racial aspect behind Turner’s shooting of their son. Othman said when he brought this up to Caldwell County law enforcement officials, they dismissed the possibility altogether “because it was too dark for Turner to see a face,” though the family remains unconvinced.

He added that according to footage from police body cameras, which the police showed him, he could hear officers arriving at the scene and reassuring Turner that he was “a good guy.”

Caldwell County declined a public information request for the recordings of the 911 call, citing the ongoing investigation.

It is difficult to ascertain the extent to which the fraternity, if any, between Caldwell County law enforcement personnel and a local resident in the provincial southern town of 1,200 residents might have set the tone for the homicide investigation of a victim who was an outsider and an immigrant. SYG laws might also have impeded the homicide investigation as prosecutors and the police tend to shy away from cases they feel likely meet the relatively relaxed standard for self-defense and may unlikely hold up to prosecution in court.

Indeed some states, including Florida, have additional provisions intended to discourage the arrest and prosecution of people who claim to have stood their ground in self-defense. “And the police may or may not make an arrest,” Pearson said.

Whether this played a role in the decision of the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department to relinquish key evidence before it had even launched a proper investigation remains a matter of speculation. But the influence of the spirit of the SYG law in this case is evident in the language used by the authorities to describe what happened.

The initial press release issued by the sheriff’s office described the shooting as one committed by “a homeowner” against a “suspicious vehicle,” code words that invoke the Castle Doctrine and SYG. There was no mention, for example, of the fact that the suspect falsely claimed that there was a gun or that the victim’s vehicle was found perpendicular to Turner’s driveway when the police arrived at the scene.

Sonja Villalobos, mayor pro tem of Martindale, recalled to New Lines how the public discussed the shooting in its immediate aftermath: “Maybe it was the next day, but just hearing about it made it seem almost like someone was in the neighborhood doing something they shouldn’t have been doing, and they were shot. That’s how I was introduced to the story.” She didn’t even know that someone had died, she added.

The “‘Stand Your Ground’ Kills” report co-published by Giffords and the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that Texas’ law is an extreme outlier in authorizing the use of deadly force to protect or retrieve property of any value. In one case in 2013 in Texas, a jury acquitted a man who shot and killed a woman he had hired as an escort because he claimed she had committed “theft during the nighttime” by leaving with his money without having sex with him. The jury found that Texas’s law allowed the man to use deadly force to recover his money.

Turner claimed to the police that he was protecting his trailer, which was parked in his driveway.

With no trial date set, the Dghoughi family is struggling to find answers about police conduct in their son’s homicide investigation, and they wonder whether they will ever see justice served. They say the Caldwell County victim unit gave them the cold shoulder from day one, never reaching out to help them navigate the Texas justice system, which is the mandate of the (tax-funded) victims’ unit. From the start, they said, they felt shunned by many people in the local community and treated with suspicion. When they held a vigil for their loved one near the scene of his fatal shooting, some residents complained to the county about the use of tax dollars in mowing the lawn of the grounds on which the victim’s mourners had gathered. And those in attendance, including Othman, felt that they were being watched rather than protected when the sheriff sent a car with a uniformed police officer to drive slowly back and forth past the vigil.

But to those who knew Dghoughi best, it is clear what they think might have happened.

“He just got lost,” Othman told New Lines, adding that Dghoughi had apparently gotten lost and was checking GPS on his Samsung phone. When the police arrived, the GPS app was still open, and according to Othman, the GPS app showed that Dghoughi had already made a wrong turn once or twice before ending up in front of Turner’s house.

In the sprawling backcountry roads of Texas, where people are generally friendly and cell phone reception is spotty, getting lost was a common occurrence for Dghoughi, who loved to take long drives and listen to music or chat on speaker phone, according to his family and girlfriend. “He’d be on the phone with me then realize that he’d missed another turn,” his mother recalled.

Even the sheriff’s office seemed in agreement. According to Othman, in the hours and days that unfolded after the shooting, detectives told Othman that it looked like “an unfortunate mistake” and that clearly Dghoughi had gotten lost in the neighborhood.

Othman says that he has been “a complete mess, unable to grieve,” as he has taken it upon himself to keep the pressure on the district attorney’s office and bring Turner to justice.

Fred Weber, the Caldwell County district attorney overseeing the case, told New Lines in an email that he was unable to comment on the details of the ongoing investigation but to “please understand that investigations do not end with an indictment. The investigation in this case continues and will do so up until the day of trial. I believe most of your questions will be answered at that time.”

He added that he is “committed to seeking justice in this case, and I firmly believe that end is better suited by presenting the evidence directly to the jury.”

Until then, Dghoughi’s bereaved family members who reside in the U.S. and Morocco must contend with putting back the pieces of their shattered lives and accept that their son will never fulfill the “better future” he sought by coming to America.

“My brother was an organ donor. When he died, his organs saved the lives of Americans,” Othman said. “But America stabbed him in the back.”

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