Home Is Where the Hurt Is

Coloradoís Make My Day law was designed to protect homeowners who were forced to kill in self-defense. Hereís who itís really helped.

Last year, three days before Christmas, in an isolated field outside the tiny Western Slope town of Mancos, Richard Skala and Kelly Green began drinking hard. The two men lived in small trailers near each other. Neither did much in the way of regular employment. Green worked a mining claim next to his trailer; Skala considers himself a sculptor. Neighbors referred to the two men as "drinking buddies," though the emphasis seemed to be on drinking.

"It was more like a battered-woman relationship than anything," says Jeff Pagliuca, a Denver attorney. The men were a dark version of the odd couple, antagonistic and dependent. Green was an alcoholic who could become violent when he drank. (His daughter later admitted that she hadn't been in contact with her father for more than five years. Part of the reason, she said, was that Green seemed more comfortable away from people, living on the margins of society. But another piece of the explanation was plain fear.)

Skala was, at least outwardly, more peaceful. He had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War -- "very laid-back," says Pagliuca. "I think he thought that by being kind and helping out, he could help Green." He kept a cello in his trailer.

David Guenther.
David Guenther.

The two men had known each other for the better part of a decade. But more and more often, Green seemed to steer his free-floating anger toward Skala. A year earlier, during a drunken fight, he had gripped Skala by the throat and thrown him into his cello. Skala had snatched up a .22 rifle and fired it over Green's head, ordering him to leave. Green did.

Yet their uneasy relationship had resumed, as it always did, and on the night of December 22, 1998, the two men found themselves sharing a bottle once more. (Green's blood alcohol level was later shown to be twice what is considered the limit for impaired driving; Skala's was even higher.) As the night wore on, Green again began to threaten his friend. Eventually, Skala asked him to leave, and Green stalked out of the trailer.

Moments later, though, Green burst back in. He stepped menacingly toward Skala. This time, when Skala told him to stop, Green refused. Skala, who later would claim that he'd spotted a weapon in Green's hand, grabbed a .410-gauge shotgun he kept near the door, brought it to his shoulder and shot his friend once, at point-blank range. The round nicked Green's heart; for all medical purposes, he died instantly.

Like many self-defense cases, Green's death was, in retrospect, a bewildering mix of recollection and fact, hatred, fear and remorse. A paramedic team arrived before the police did. They decided that there was nothing they could do for Green, so they left the trailer to wait outside for investigators. When the police arrived, the paramedics re-entered Skala's home. But this time they noticed something different: Several minutes earlier, Green had lain empty-handed and dead on the floor; now there was a large hunting knife in his hand, obviously planted there by Skala. Several days later, Skala attended the funeral of his late friend.

One month ago, in the latest use of Colorado's Homeowner Protection Act of 1985 -- better known as the "Make My Day law" -- Skala was legally cleared of the killing. Citing the statute, a La Plata County judge dismissed murder charges against Skala. A charge of tampering with evidence, relating to the mysterious appearance of the hunting knife, is still pending. Yet it is one of the stark facts of life under the law that what really happened that night in Mancos may never be known. After all, it is routine in Make My Day cases for there to be only one witness still alive.


In his 1990 book, The Make My Day Law: Colorado's Experiment in Home Protection, William Wilbanks, a professor at a Florida university, reported that at a 1987 murder trial, a group of twelve-year-old students touring the Denver County Courthouse wondered if a trial that was under way had anything to do with the recently passed Make My Day law. When they were told that it did, one of the boys asked if it was true that he could legally shoot a trespasser in his backyard. Nearly fifteen years after it passed, the Homeowner Protection Act is still probably the state's best-known and least-understood law.

The law's nickname, and the stories of vigilante violence that accompany it, lead many people to believe that in Colorado, any trespasser on one's property may be killed without consequence. Yet the law is more demanding than that. It requires a homeowner to meet four specific requirements before he may shoot to kill and hope to walk away without punishment.

To begin with, the person defending the property must be an occupant of it. In 1994, when a stranger broke into her Capitol Hill home, state senator Pat Pascoe ran for help to her neighbor, Ronald Coleman, an ex-cop. Although Coleman's defense of the senator was efficient -- he shot and paralyzed the burglar as he fled down a dark alley -- he was not protected from prosecution under the Make My Day law, since he did not occupy the home that had been broken into (among other reasons).

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