PHOENIX - Gov. Janet Napolitano on Monday signed a bill to strengthen Arizonans' rights to claim self-defense and to use force against intruders.
The bill (SB1145), which took effect immediately once the governor signed it, was supported by the National Rifle Association and opposed by groups representing prosecutors and police chiefs.
It scraps a 1997 state law by imposing a new burden of proof on prosecutors to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant's self-defense claim - that an act that would otherwise be a crime was justified - was unfounded.
It also implants in Arizona law the so-called "castle doctrine" that gives a person the right to use force in a home or vehicle against an intruder without having to retreat.
The self-defense portion of the bill stirred the most controversy because prosecutors said Arizona law already doesn't require a person to retreat.
However, prosecutors contended that the self-defense justification part of the bill opens the door for abuses in which one of the only two people involved in a violent incident is dead and can't appear in court to refute a self-defense claim.
"Every trial will become a challenge as the prosecutor has to find evidence that each of an infinite number of possible scenarios which would create justification didn't happen," La Paz County Attorney Martin Brannan wrote lawmakers in an e-mail last month. "Modifying Arizona's justification defenses will not protect the law-abiding but will rather have the effect of protecting those least worthy of protection."
Supporters argued that the 1997 self-defense justification law unfairly put people claiming self-defense at a disadvantage by requiring them to essentially admit the act but prove they had a justification for it.
"In effect, citizens who are forced by an attacker to act in self-defense are presumed guilty until they prove their innocence in court by a preponderance of the evidence," NRA President Sandy Froman, a Tucson lawyer, wrote legislators on April 10.
Napolitano received approximately 1,200 e-mails on the bill, the vast majority urging her to sign it, spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer said.
Dozens of e-mails reviewed by The Associated Press under an open-records request found some urging a veto on grounds that it would make it harder to prosecute domestic violence cases.
However, most of the e-mails urged her to sign the bill, with many saying the 1997 law was fundamentally unfair and expressing concern about self-defense claimants potentially losing their liberty or having to mount a costly legal defense.
"If I have to protect my family in my home or car, I don't want to have to go broke proving my innocence," Patrick Mehall of Tucson wrote in an e-mail to Napolitano.
Greenlee County Attorney Derek D. Rapier requested a veto, telling Napolitano that he feared the shifted burden of proof would mean that some domestic violence cases won't be prosecuted. Many victims are already reluctant to testify, recant their testimony or bail out their assailants, he wrote in a letter.
"It is in this area that I have my gravest concerns for how (the bill) will play out," Rapier wrote. "I don't believe that a change in the burden of proof will affect the clearly guilty or not guilty cases. However, for many (domestic violence) cases where most victims are reticent and intimidated to begin with, the outcome is anything but obvious."
Napolitano signed the self-defense bill one week after she vetoed an NRA-backed measure to prohibit her from imposing emergency restrictions on guns and ammunition during a declared state of emergency.