Gwendolyn Jenrette can be forgiven for putting security cameras around her modest Miami home. She lives in Liberty City, a high-crime neighborhood in a high-crime town. Her low-slung duplex backs onto the railroad tracks and has been targeted in the past.
She can also be forgiven for racing home when, on Thursday afternoon, her security system alerted her to another break-in at the property.
But can she be forgiven for, according to police, fatally shooting a teenager as he fled her house, even as officers were on their way to help?
That is the question now facing the state’s attorney’s office.
Seventeen-year-old Trevon Johnson died Thursday night after Jenrette shot him once as he allegedly fled the scene of the home invasion, according to Miami-Dade police. There have been no indications that Johnson was armed.
The slaying of the teenage burglary suspect was reported triumphantly by local television station WSVN, which said Jenrette had “turned the tables” on Johnson.
“Police say this would-be robber chose the wrong home because this homeowner did more than just call the cops,” reported WSVN’s Brandon Beyer. “She had a gun.”
But Johnson’s family said the young man didn’t deserve to die over mere property, which they said he hadn’t even taken.
“I don’t care if she have her gun license, her rights or any of that. That is way beyond the law,” Johnson’s cousin Nautika Harris told CBS Miami. “Way beyond.”
The law on home invasions and use of force, however, varies widely from one state to the next. Similar cases across the United States have produced starkly different outcomes, with some homeowners who shot intruders charged with manslaughter or even murder.
The Miami shooting comes at a crucial moment in the debate over gun control in this country. In January, President Obama announced new executive orders to combat gun violence, angering gun rights advocates. And amid an incessant string of mass shootings, states continue to expand their open-carry regulations.
Over the past two years, a handful of U.S. homeowners have been charged for fatally shooting intruders.
In 2013, James George Stiffler fatally shot a man he found allegedly ransacking his Helena, Mont., home. The homeowner, then 66, said he feared his wife was in the house and that the intruder, 37-year-old Henry Thomas Johnson, was dangerous.
At first, authorities sided with Stiffler. But then the medical examiner determined that Johnson had been shot in the back.
“I believed Stiffler was not at fault,” Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton told the Billings Gazette. “But forensic evidence indicates a different event.”
Prosecutors charged Stiffler with murder in 2015. His attorneys slammed the charges.
“Mr. Stiffler has mourned the loss of life, even as he was left with no choice but to fire his weapon,” Stiffler’s attorneys said in a statement. “But it is a travesty of justice that Johnson’s conduct also now threatens to ruin Mr. Stiffler’s life as well.”
Last month, a jury failed to reach a verdict in the murder trial, according to the Missoulian.
In another recent case, an Akron, Ohio, man was indicted in October for fatally shooting a home invader. David Hillis, 21, was charged with voluntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony, according to Cleveland.com. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial for the Aug. 7, 2015, slaying of Marcus Glover.
When Glover and another man tried to rob Hillis, he grabbed a gun and chased them outside, firing several shots after them, according to police. Glover was found dead two houses away. Akron prosecutors said that by chasing the intruders, Hillis was no longer protected by Ohio’s Castle Doctrine law, which allows homeowners to use lethal force, according to Cleveland.com.
In many more cases, though, homeowners have not been charged with a crime after killing suspected burglars.
Perhaps the most famous recent case occurred in July 2014, when 80-year-old Long Beach, Calif., homeowner Thomas Greer fatally shot a female intruder even after she begged for her life and claimed she was pregnant.
According to prosecutors, the woman, 28-year-old Andrea Miller, and a male accomplice had robbed Greer at least once before. When they returned on July 22, 2014, Greer grabbed his gun, chased them outside and shot Miller in the back.
“Don’t shoot me, I’m pregnant! I’m going to have a baby!” Miller claimed, falsely, before Greer shot her once more.
“He meted out his own punishment,” wrote syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. “Was that because Greer was angry and frustrated at being victimized and wanted retribution? If so, that’s not a good excuse for taking a life.”
In January 2015, prosecutors announced they would not file charges against Greer, according to the Los Angeles Times.
— Brian Bateman (@locatelostchild) November 21, 2015
A missing child alert for Johnson from November.
Charges are even less likely in Thursday’s shooting in Miami.
Johnson’s family made an impassioned claim that the teenager deserved justice, despite the circumstances of his death.
“He was not supposed to die like this,” Harris, his cousin, told CBS. “He had a future ahead of him. Trevon had goals. He was a funny guy, very big on education, loved learning.”
Johnson was a student at D.A. Dorsey Technical College, barely a block away from where he died. He also lived in the same neighborhood, and his cousin said Liberty City shared some blame in his death.
“You have to look at it from every child’s point of view that was raised in the hood,” Harris said. “You have to understand … how he gonna get his money to have clothes to go to school? You have to look at it from his point-of-view.”
She and other family members said that Jenrette did not need to shoot Johnson, especially since police were on their way.
“If she called the police already, why would she shoot him?” Harris told CBS.
There is little clarity in the reports of what happened that afternoon after Jenrette rushed home. It’s unclear whether Jenrette called the police or whether they were automatically called to the house by the alarm system. A police statement said she “arrived prior to the officers and began to inspect the exterior of the home, when a confrontation occurred with the burglar. The homeowner produced a firearm and shot the subject.”
Other news reports quoting police said she “went room to room” searching the house before finding Johnson, according to WSVN.
“She observed a subject exiting the home through the rear,” Miami-Dade police spokesman Daniel Ferrin told the television station. “At that point there was some type of a quick confrontation.”
“The police told her don’t go in the house,” Vaughan Johnson, Trevon’s brother, told WPLG. “She’s still going in the house searching for something. Then she says this lady came out and shot one time and shot him in the chest.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Johnson’s sister, Nisha Johnson, told CBS. “She did not have to shoot him.”
Police arrived moments after the shooting and tried to revive Trevon, but it was too late. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Johnson had been arrested earlier this year, although the charge was not disclosed because he was a juvenile, WSVN reported.
The state’s attorney’s office will decide whether charges will be filed against Jenrette. But Florida statutes provide some of the staunchest protections in the country for homeowners who confront intruders.
“A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony,” according to state law. “A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.”
But Florida law goes far beyond this “Stand Your Ground” law, which became the focal point in the 2012 shooting of another 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Fla.
Instead, in Florida, anybody who “unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.”
That means that homeowners are presumed to have “reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another” whenever someone “unlawfully and forcefully” enters their house, essentially giving homeowners broad license to shoot at intruders.
Florida law also provides homeowners who shoot intruders with sweeping protections against civil lawsuits, meaning Johnson’s family is unlikely to receive a wrongful death settlement.
Police said Jenrette is cooperating with the investigation and accompanied officers to the station for questioning.
“She’s a person that is a little distraught because this is her home that someone obviously was in,” Ferrin told CBS.
He also asked citizens to let officers do their jobs, however.
“If there’s any type of situation that happens or they believe there’s a burglary at the home or any type of confrontation, dial 911. Have the police make that confrontation,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”