US man charged for shooting Black teen who approached wrong house

A Kansas City homeowner is accused of shooting 16-year-old Ralph Yarl after the teen mistakenly rang the wrong doorbell.

A young boy poses with a bass clarinet
Ralph Yarl's family says the 16-year-old was attempting to pick up his younger brothers when he was shot and injured [Lee Merritt/Reuters]

A white man in the United States has been charged with two felonies after he allegedly shot a 16-year-old Black teenager who mistook his home for another.

The 84-year-old homeowner, Andrew Lester, faces charges of felony assault and armed criminal action for the shooting, which left teenager Ralph Yarl hospitalised with wounds to his head and right arm.

Zachary Thompson, the prosecutor for Clay County, Missouri, explained in a press conference on Monday that the charge of armed criminal action can incur a penalty of up to 15 years, but felony assault “carries with it a range of punishment of up to life”.

When asked why an attempted murder charge or a hate crime charge was not pursued, Thompson told reporters that the “A felony” was the “highest level of offence in the state of Missouri”.

“Other charges may not carry that same level of range of punishment,” Thompson said.

He added: “I don’t want to litigate this case in the press. It’s been my goal from the very beginning to get justice for the child involved in the case. And I don’t want to jeopardise that by talking about the facts to the media.”

Thompson did say, however, that “there was a racial component to the case”.

Lester’s bond was set at $200,000. A warrant for his arrest was issued on Monday.

In a statement released on social media afterwards, the legal team representing Yarl — civil rights lawyers Lee Merritt and Ben Crump — applauded the criminal charges but questioned the delay in filing them, quoting the legal principle that “justice delayed is justice denied”.

“We are relieved that charges are finally moving forward but are disappointed in the delay that necessitated national outcry for an obvious crime. We are cautiously optimistic about accountability and justice,” the lawyers wrote.

They also shared that US President Joe Biden had personally called Yarl’s family with prayers for his recovery. The Democratic president has made the reform of US gun laws a prominent part of his platform.

Yarl’s shooting on April 13 in Kansas City prompted a national outcry after his family explained that the 16-year-old had been in the neighbourhood to pick up his younger twin brothers. They allege that Yarl simply rang the wrong doorbell, resulting in his being shot twice.

“He didn’t have his phone. He mistakenly went to the wrong house, one block away from the house where his siblings were,” his aunt Faith Spoonmore wrote on a GoFundMe page to raise money for his medical bills. “The man in the home opened the door, looked my nephew in the eye, and shot him in the head.”

Yarl has since been released from the hospital and is recovering, his family told the Kansas City Star. “He continues to improve. He’s responsive and he’s making good progress,” his father Paul told the newspaper.

Yarl’s shooting prompted widespread demonstrations in Kansas City, with protesters showing up outside the house where the high-school junior was shot.

Politicians and celebrities, from singer Justin Timberlake to Oscar-winning actor Halle Berry, also took to social media to press for criminal charges against Lester.

“Doug and I are praying for Ralph Yarl and his family as he fights for his life,” Vice President Kamala Harris wrote on Twitter. “Let’s be clear: No child should ever live in fear of being shot for ringing the wrong doorbell.”

Former United States Representative Gabrielle Giffords, now a gun reform advocate, also expressed her frustration on social media.

“As someone who is still recovering from a gunshot to the head, I am heartbroken and infuriated that Ralph Yarl now faces a lifetime of recovery. At 16 years old. For simply ringing a doorbell,” she wrote. “We cannot continue to be a nation defined by gun violence and injustice.”

Some of the criticism was directed at local prosecutors and law enforcement, who had previously taken Lester into custody before releasing him pending further investigation. Critics questioned why it had taken days to file charges and make a formal arrest.

“There were things that had to be done in order to build [the case] on a solid foundation,” prosecutor Thompson told the press on Monday. “That means attempting to get a formal statement from the witness in the case. That means waiting for forensic laboratory results to be processed.”

A boy poses outside in a green space against a railing
A high-school junior, Ralph Yarl hopes to attend Texas A&M University after graduation [Lee Merritt/Reuters]

Merritt, one of the lawyers representing Yarl, dismissed that rationale in a statement on Monday. “I can say with absolute certainty the excuses being offered are not true,” he wrote.

As of Monday, more than $2m had been raised for Yarl on the GoFundMe page. His aunt explained the extra money would help Yarl’s family pay for therapy, future college expenses and a trip to West Africa for the teen.

She described Yarl as a standout bass clarinet player who hoped to attend Texas A&M University to major in chemical engineering.

A majority of US states, including Missouri, have what is called a “stand your ground” law, allowing a person to use physical force “when he or she reasonably believes such force to be necessary to defend himself or herself” against “imminent” danger.

Such laws do not include a “duty to retreat”. They have therefore been criticised as justification for excessive force, with some opponents calling them “shoot first” laws.

But even in states with “stand your ground” laws, individuals still must prove they felt a “reasonable” need to protect themselves or a third party from death or physical injury.

Source: Al Jazeera