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Booby trap killing echoes textbook case

Downstate man who set shotgun to kill a burglar was convicted of first-degree murder.

William Wasmund
Last year, William Wasmund rigged a shotgun to the door of a shed on his property. Jeff Spicer entered the shed in Chester, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis, and was killed. Last week, a Union County jury found Wasmund guilty of first-degree murder.
Union County State’s Attorney’s Office/Distributed by the Associated Press

As a homeowner, you can put a 12-foot-tall fence around your property and top it with coils of razor-sharp concertina wire. The law will make no trouble for you, provided there aren’t zoning regulations regarding fence height.

But if inside the fence you dig a moat, and line it with spikes, so that anybody brash enough to go over the top of your fence might be impaled, you could set yourself up for serious jail time.

Why? Anybody? C’mon folks, you’ve got to do these readings.

Katko v. Briney, a classic legal case on the tip of the tongue of anybody who ever went to law school or who, like me, typed his wife’s law school papers.

On a July day in 1967, Marvin E. Katko broke into an unoccupied Iowa farmhouse, where the owners, tired of such break-ins, had set a shot-gun on an iron bed frame with the trigger wired to the door and the muzzle pointed toward it.

The booby trap worked, the shotgun firing into Katko’s legs. The injured intruder sued the farmhouse owners, Edward and Bertha Briney.

“Did Defendants employ a reasonable means of preventing the unlawful entry of trespassers on their property?” asks the CaseBriefs web site.

The Iowa Supreme Court said no, concluding, “the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property.”

It awarded Katko $30,000 in damages.

Alas, William Wasmund did not go to law school, nor type his wife’s papers, apparently. Nor did the Downstate man pause to ask himself whether rigging a 12-gauge shotgun to the door of a shed on his property was a good idea.

And so, about a year ago — Sept. 16, 2018 — Jeff Spicer entered the shed in Chester, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis, and was killed.

Last week, a Union County jury found Wasmund guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated battery. Had Wasmund been sitting with the shotgun and shot Spicer as he came through the door, he’d probably be OK, legally. Illinois law states a person can use deadly force if he “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

So why aren’t booby traps permitted? Simple. Because certain people have a legal right to enter your home without permission — firefighters, for instance.

“You don’t want people to use deadly force for just trespassers, it’s excessive,” said Harold Krent, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “You set a booby trap, you don’t know who’s going to be subject to it. It could be somebody coming in to shelter from the rain. That’s probably what persuaded the jury to convict.”

Because the law takes this view, we do not have to live in a society peppered with booby traps. You can cut across your neighbor’s lawn and be reasonably confident you won’t step on land mines buried there to discourage trespassers. We rarely hear of cases like the Florida store owner who set a trap that electrocuted a burglar in 1986, and then because they end up in court (in that case, a grand jury gave the store owner a pass).

The law is actually quite good at nudging us toward being the sort of nation we want to live in. And if we want to be a place where innocent civilians — men, women and children — peacefully going about their business, at concerts, church and schools, are not regularly and randomly slaughtered by any psychopath or terrorist or loser hoping to go out in what he considers a blaze of glory, we could indeed be such a nation. The way most countries in the industrialized world are.

We need the laws to change. They don’t, because those who make money selling the weaponry that facilitates these killings use a sliver of that money to corrupt our politicians, and that’s been the end of the story. So far. But national values, like views of the law, change. They are changing now. Slowly, but surely.

The only question left hanging, for me, was what could possibly be in that shed that’s worth the lives of two men: Spicer, losing his in a shotgun blast; and Wasmund, 48, perhaps spending the rest of his in prison (he’ll be sentenced Dec. 16).

During the trial, an Illinois State Police investigator testified it was “a typical wood storage shed.”