LIBERTY, Mo. — The 84-year-old man who shot Ralph Yarl when the Black teenager went to his door by mistake pleaded not guilty Wednesday in a case that has shocked the country and renewed national debates about gun policies and race in America.
Andrew Lester walked into the courtroom with a cane and spoke quietly during Wednesday’s hearing, his first public appearance since last week’s shooting. Authorities say he shot Yarl, a 16-year-old honor student, first in the head, then in the arm after Yarl came to his door because he had confused the address with the home where he was supposed to pick up his younger brothers.
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. Only about 10% to 15% of people who are shot in the head survive, said Dr. Christopher Kang, the president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Some civil rights leaders and Yarl’s family attorney, Lee Merritt, have urged the Department of Justice to investigate the shooting and for prosecutors to charge Lester with a hate crime, with Merritt noting that Yarl “was armed only with his Black skin.”
Justice Department officials have not responded to calls seeking comment.
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.
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 Wednesday’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.
Merritt said Yarl is “completely humbled” by the outpouring of support.
“He says, ’I don’t know why everyone’s making a big deal out of me,”” Merritt said. “You know, it’s it’s just me, right? It’s not like the president was shot.”
But Eliana Brannlund said it has been rough not having her friend and fellow band member around at Staley High School.
“He always brought a lot of positivity and smiles to our band class as well as our rehearsals outside of school,” Brannlund said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I hope people are able to hear about who Ralph is as a person and understand that he is loving, kind and sweet.”
Yarl was shot at about 10 p.m. last Thursday after his mother asked him to pick up his twin brothers at a home on 115th Terrace, Police Chief Stacey Graves has said.
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.
Legal experts expect Lester to claim self-defense and cite Missouri’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The state is one of about 30 with statues that say people don’t have to retreat when threatened but instead can respond with physical force.
But Merritt said the law applies only 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.
But Merritt said Yarl’s family is frustrated that Lester is out on bond and that the next court hearing is not until June.
“We want this process to go as quickly as possible,” Merritt said. “And we know that if a defendant is out on bond, they may feel free to push the date down a little further as opposed to if he was in custody.”
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, and Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.