ST. LOUIS • Ernest Williams, 14, says he, his cousin and their friend were wrong to sneak out on their bikes at night, hop a backyard fence and rummage through someone’s car for pocket change.
The car’s owner interrupted the boys and shot at them about 12:45 a.m. Sunday, killing Ernest’s 13-year-old cousin, Martinez Smith-Payne.
Ernest wishes they had gone home instead of riding down that North Point neighborhood alley. “I was just thinking while in the jail cell, what was up in that car was not worth Martinez’s life,” Ernest said on his front porch Monday, standing next to his mother. “We all were responsible for going in that car. All three of us made that choice.”
Their friend ran off, but Ernest called 911 and stayed with Martinez until police arrived. Ernest was taken into juvenile custody for several hours.
The shooting could test Missouri’s laws regarding a homeowner’s right to protect himself.
Prosecutors said Monday they are reviewing the case, though authorities released only a broad outline of the facts: a 60-year-old man shot Martinez after catching him and two other boys searching his unlocked car in the 5900 block of Riverview Boulevard.
Martinez, who lived in the 5200 block of Davison Avenue, died at a hospital. Police arrested the man who shot him Sunday, but the man was released after prosecutors did not charge him. The man could not be reached for comment Monday.
A spokeswoman said St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce’s office would not make anyone available to answer questions Monday because the case was under review. A prepared statement from Joyce called the case “a terrible tragedy,” adding that “Missouri law regarding a homeowner’s right to protect himself and his property is complicated.”
Ernest said he and Martinez were sleeping over at the home of an 11-year-old friend who lives nearby. Ernest said they got bored about 11 p.m. and decided to go for a bike ride. They rode about 1½ miles to the alley along Riverview and saw a car with an inside light on parked in a fenced-in alley-facing driveway.
Ernest said they decided to hop the fence and look inside the car. He said he stood as lookout next to the driver’s side while Martinez and the friend looked through the car.
“All I heard was gunshots,” said Ernest, a freshman at Roosevelt High School. “With the first gunshot, I was over the gate first. And a couple of more gunshots and the other boy went over the gate. Martinez was nowhere to be found. I went back and Martinez was over there laying in the alley, yelling ‘Help, help, help!”’
Ernest said the shots came from the back of the house. He said the man didn’t confront the boys before opening fire.
Neither the 11-year-old boy nor his relatives could be reached Monday.
Ernest’s mother, Katrice Jones, 41, said none of the boys had guns but said a detective told her one of the boys had a screwdriver. It is unclear if any of the boys threatened the man with it. She said her son told her the screwdriver was in a bookbag and not used as a weapon.
Jones said it was “wrong” for Martinez to have been killed. But she acknowledged the boys were trespassing and that the man “has a right to protect his stuff.”
“It could have cost all three of them their lives,” she said.
Missouri’s self-defense law, known as the castle doctrine, was passed in 2007 and protects homeowners from being charged or being found liable for damages if they harm invaders.
Peter Joy, a Washington University law professor, said there weren’t enough facts known about the case to say if the doctrine could be used as a defense.
The homeowner does not have to retreat from an intruder, and the crux is if the homeowner is put in fear of “unlawful force,” Joy said.
The castle doctrine “is just a mess in the sense that there are these situations where there are homeowners who are shooting individuals who may be guilty of nothing more than trespassing,” Joy said.
Kevin Jamison, a lawyer from Gladstone, Mo., lobbied for the passage of the castle doctrine. To successfully invoke it, he said, one needs to prove “that you did not start the fight, and you had to have a reasonable belief that you needed to shoot to save yourself.”
What constitutes a reasonable fear isn’t defined in the law and is at the discretion of police, prosecutors and the courts, Jamison said. If the boys had weapons, such as screwdrivers, or if any of the boys advanced on the homeowner even from 20 feet away, that could be cause for reasonable fear.
“It depends on how far away the kids were, if they were armed and what they were doing,” he said.
Martinez was a seventh-grader at Confluence Elite Academy in St. Louis, said his mother, Frances Smith-Woods, 40. He loved sports, especially football, and wanted to either be a professional football player or a chef. He had two brothers, 19 and 11. Two years ago, he lost several fingers in a fireworks accident.
Smith-Woods said she doesn’t blame the family of the youngest boy for not keeping the boys inside.
“You can’t keep an eye on a child 24/7,” she said. “Kids are going to be kids. And they’re boys. I know that I raised Martinez to the best of my ability, being a single, black parent. He was a good kid. He just made a bad decision.”
She also said she was conflicted about whether the homeowner should face charges and hopes to talk to him soon to get his side of the story.