By Margaret Stafford and Jim Salter
Walking with a cane and speaking too quietly to be heard throughout a Liberty, Missouri, courtroom, 84-year-old Andrew Lester pleaded not guilty Wednesday in the shooting of Ralph Yarl, a Black teenager who mistakenly knocked on Lester's front door looking for his younger brothers.
The shooting has attracted presidential attention and renewed national debate about gun policies as people react with shock to a 16-year-old honor student being shot first in the head, then in the arm while making a routine stop in a residential neighborhood.
The case is among three in recent days involving young people who were shot after mistakenly showing up in the wrong places. A 20-year-old woman was killed in upstate New York when the car she was in pulled into the wrong driveway. In Texas, two cheerleaders were shot after one of them mistakenly got into a car thinking it was hers.
Yarl was shot at point-blank range in the head but miraculously survived the bullet.
This booking photo provided by the Clay County, Mo., Sheriff's Office shows Andrew Lester. Lester, the 84-year-old man charged in the shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl in Kansas City, turned himself in Tuesday, April 18, 2023, at the Clay County Detention Center, the sheriff's office said. Lester surrendered a day after being charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action. (Clay County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Some civil rights leaders and Yarl's family attorney, Lee Merritt, have urged prosecutors to charge Lester with a hate crime, with Merritt noting that "was armed only with his Black skin."
Clay County prosecutor Zachary Thompson said first-degree assault is a higher-level crime, allowing a sentence of up to life in prison, which is more than a hate-crime charge would carry. Though activists have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, it was unclear whether it would do so. Messages seeking comment from the department were not returned.
Lester remains free after posting $20,000 — 10% of his $200,000 bond — and agreeing to relinquish any weapons and have no contact with Yarl or his family. He also agreed to have his cellphone monitored.
Yarl’s relatives were not at Wedneday's hearing because they are emotionally exhausted, Merritt said. Lester’s attorney, Steve Salmon, did not come out of the courthouse to speak with reporters.
The shooting happened about 10 p.m. Thursday. Police Chief Stacey Graves said that Yarl’s mother asked him to pick up his twin brothers at a home on 115th Terrace.
Yarl, who is all-state band member as well as a top student, mistakenly went to 115th Street — a block away from where he meant to be. When he rang the bell, Lester came to the door and used a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson 1888 revolver to shoot the teenager.
Lester told police he lives alone and was “scared to death” when he saw Yarl on the porch because he thought someone was trying to break in, police said in court documents.
No words were exchanged before the shooting, but afterward, as Yarl got up to run, he heard Lester yell, “Don’t come around here,” the statement said.
Yarl ran to multiple homes asking for help before finding someone who would call the police, according to court documents.
Merritt said the teen is hardly an imposing figure.
“The question is, at 5-8 and 140 pounds, what did Andrew Lester look out and see?” Merritt asked at a downtown rally Tuesday. “And the answer is he saw a Black person. And for him, that was enough justification. And that would just be a tragedy except law enforcement agreed with him.”
Legal experts expect Lester to claim self-defense and cite Missouri's “Stand Your Ground” law, sometimes referred to as the “Castle Doctrine.” Missouri is among about 30 states with similar laws that say residents don’t have to retreat when threatened in their homes, but instead can respond with physical, even lethal force.
But Merritt said the law only applies if “someone’s on your property and they’re looking to do you harm .... We don’t have any evidence of that. The Castle Doctrine does not apply to this case.”
The shooting outraged many in Kansas City and across the country. President Joe Biden spoke with Yarl on Monday, and on Tuesday invited him to the White House.
“No parent should have to worry that their kid will be shot after ringing the wrong doorbell,” Biden tweeted. “We’ve got to keep up the fight against gun violence.”
Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who had remained silent on the shooting until Wednesday, accused Biden of politicizing it.
"I don’t want some 16-year-old kid to be getting shot because he went to the wrong house — we just don’t want those kinds of things to happen. It’s a tragedy,” Parson told the Kansas City Star. “When the president of the United States is trying to make a political statement over a very serious tragedy, it is very unfortunate.”
Thompson, the prosecutor, said Monday that there was a “racial component” to the shooting but did not elaborate. Merritt said the Yarl family met privately with Thompson. The prosecutor said he was “echoing the words from law enforcement that obviously there’s a racial dynamic at play in this case,” said Merritt, who called the answer “shallow.”
Lester’s next court date is June 1.
“From this point forward, the state will be pushing to move this case forward as swiftly as legally permitted,” Thompson said in a statement after Wednesday's hearing.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this report.