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Closing Argument

They Shot at Police. Were They Standing Their Ground?

No-knock raids often end in tragedy — and some civilians face prosecution for shooting back.

Three SWAT team members, wearing helmets, green uniforms and protective gear with the label "SHERIFF" on their backs, hold assault rifles while standing on a staircase.
The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team searches for a suspect in Williamsport, Md. on Oct. 21, 2023.

This is The Marshall Project’s Closing Argument newsletter, a weekly deep dive into a key criminal justice issue. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters here.

Many Americans, especially on the right, have rallied around two political creeds: support for the police and the right to armed self-defense. But what happens when #BackTheBlue and #StandYourGround conflict?

Consider the trial of Marvin Guy, which begins Monday in Bell County, north of Austin, Texas. In 2014, Killeen Police Department officers suspected he was selling drugs and a SWAT team raided the apartment where he and his girlfriend were asleep. They didn’t knock, and it’s unclear whether they announced themselves before smashing windows. “I fired out the window, having no idea it was the police, thinking it was a robbery, or somebody trying to come into the house to kill us,” Guy told The Washington Post last year. (He has acknowledged it was illegal for him to have firearms, due to a criminal record.) Police found “approximately one gram of suspected cocaine” on the property, according to The New York Times. Amid the exchange of fire, four officers were hit and one, Detective Charles Dinwiddie, was killed.

Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty but dropped it, so Guy faces life in prison on his capital murder charge. The trial will likely focus on whether he knew he was shooting at police. Jurors will undoubtedly be thinking about “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws, which vary by state but generally give people the right to use deadly force when they are unable to retreat or inside their own homes.

Several high-profile shootings recently underscored the risks of these laws. The 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor during a raid in Louisville, Kentucky, ignited protests and led some states and cities to ban or restrict police from descending on a property without announcing themselves. Following Guy’s arrest, Killeen ended no-knock raids in drug cases. His upcoming trial is the latest example of the collision course between laws that give police the ability to surprise people, and laws that give people the right to shoot back.

Searching court records and news articles, I found nearly two dozen people who have been arrested since 1978 for shooting at officers during raids involving forcible entry or surprise. A New York Times analysis found at least 13 officers and 81 civilians had died in “forcible entry” raids from 2010 through 2016, and that even when police announced themselves before a late-night raid, people inside a house might not have heard them. Many were asleep.

There is little national data on these raids, but the Times found many of those people killed were not suspects — at least one was a child — and police sometimes raid the wrong address entirely. Washington Post columnist Radley Balko spent years tracking older cases to show how these raids are dangerous for both civilians and officers. Some officers have died, others have been wounded. When people shoot and miss, prosecutors may charge them with attempted murder. Defendants often say they did not know it was the police at their door, but prosecutors often dispute those claims.

A few months after Breonna Taylor’s death, officers in Jacksonville, Florida, raided the home of Diamonds Ford and Anthony Gantt, looking for evidence of drug sales. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said deputies announced themselves before smashing a window. Ford told local media that she did not know they were law enforcement when she fired her gun and wounded a deputy. Ford and Gantt are facing trial for attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, which could carry a life sentence.

Police have long said they need the element of surprise to stop people from destroying evidence and to control potentially dangerous suspects. But this can make it difficult for prosecutors to prove that people knew they were shooting at police.

Some prosecutors decline to seek charges in such cases, and some juries vote to acquit. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker III, shot one bullet at police, and was arrested for attempted murder of an officer. A judge dismissed the charges. Higher courts have not spent much time on the issue, but in 2020, a Florida appeals court ruled that the state’s “stand your ground” law meant that a person couldn’t be prosecuted for shooting at deputies who were not in uniform during a raid.

In the cases I found, at least 10 people were convicted on charges ranging from aggravated assault to voluntary manslaughter to capital murder. California death row prisoner Jesse Gonzalez maintains that he thought he was being ambushed by a rival gang when he shot a plainclothes officer during a raid in 1979. He remains on death row, although Los Angeles prosecutors last year voiced support for Gonzalez’s request for a new trial.

The oldest case I could find involved Greg Ott, who served 26 years for the murder of Texas Ranger Bobby Paul Doherty during a raid in 1978. Texas Monthly reporter Gary Cartwright interviewed Ott after his release in 2004, and captured how the traumatic effects of the raid rippled out over decades, touching Doherty’s widow and law enforcement colleagues, who had fought to keep Ott in prison. Ott wasn’t bitter toward them. “I understand esprit de corps, loyalty,” he told the writer. “They are noble traits. I only wish they would understand I never intended to kill anyone.”

Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer and host of the podcast “Just Say You're Sorry,” as well as the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.” He writes narrative features on a range of criminal justice subjects, including the death penalty, forensics and art and music by incarcerated people.