A convenience store clerk chased down a man and shot him dead over a case of beer this summer and was charged with murder. A week later, a clerk at another Jackson convenience store followed and fatally shot a man he said tried to rob him, and authorities let him go without charges.
Police say the robber in the second case was armed, while the man accused of stealing beer was not.
Just the same, the legal plights of the two clerks highlight the uncertain impact of National Rifle Association-backed laws sweeping the nation that make it easier to justify shooting in self-defense.
In 2006, Mississippi adopted its version of the so-called castle doctrine, which lifts requirements that individuals first try to flee before using deadly force to counter a threat in their homes, vehicles or, in Mississippi's case, at work.
Gun rights advocates who have helped pass the law in 23 states since 2003 say it removes an unfair legal penalty for people exercising a constitutional right in a life-or-death emergency, though some police and prosecutors are skeptical of self-defense claims under the law.
An Associated Press review found a growing number of cases but no clear trend yet in how the law is applied or how cases will be resolved in court.
All a defendant has to do is establish a threat, and usually the other witness is dead. That shifts the burden to prosecutors and police investigators, who have to gather evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that deadly force wasn't justified, according to a report released this summer by the National District Attorneys Association.
"It's very difficult to prove a negative," said Steven Jansen, president of the NDAA. "It might be a little too early to get the overall effect through the court process because we're just seeing the cases enter the court and finding out how the judges are going to rule."
Sarbrinder Pannu, the first clerk, alleged that James Hawthorne grabbed beer from a cooler and left without paying for it. Police Lt. Jeffery Scott said Pannu followed Hawthorne outside the store and shot him twice.
'It's our property'
Surinder Singh, president of the Jackson Indian Storeowners Association and a spokesman for Pannu, said Mississippi's law gives you the right to protect your property.
"For them, it's a case of beer. For us, it's our property," Singh said. "That person didn't have respect for his life. He put his life against one case of beer."
Police and prosecutors disagreed and charged Pannu with murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle. Pannu has not entered a plea and has declined to be interviewed.
About a week after Hawthorne was killed, a clerk at another Jackson convenience store chased and fatally shot a clown mask-wearing robber outside the store after he stole cash from the register. The clerk wasn't charged.
Police didn't release the clerk's name because he wasn't charged. As with Hawthorne's shooting, the case will be presented to a grand jury, though police said the second clerk was justified because he felt a clear and present danger.
"The first thing about it is that you want to fairly apply the law," said Scott, who helped investigate both shootings and pointed out that the second robber was armed. "The problem is that there's an exception to every rule."
Cases draw attention
Castle doctrine laws drew national attention when Joe Horn of Pasadena, Texas, shot and killed two men in November 2007 after he saw them crawling out of the windows of a neighbor's house, carrying bags of the neighbor's possessions. Horn claimed the shooting was justified by Texas' law, and a grand jury declined to indict him.
Cases this year have included a man in San Antonio who shot and killed an intruder who climbed through his bedroom window and a Lexington, Ky., man who shot through his house's front door, killing a man who had been beating on it. No charges were filed in either case.
A woman in Missouri, which enacted its castle doctrine last year, could still face charges for shooting her former boyfriend after he came through the window of her home. A coroner's jury in Adair County ruled that Jackie Gleason committed a felony when she killed Rogelio Johnson in May. Prosecutors said the jury might not have understood the law and have asked the state attorney general to review whether to file formal charges.
'They fear attacks'
The law's rapid rollout across nearly half the nation is largely the result of lobbying by the NRA. Most of the state laws, including Mississippi's, are patterned after Florida's.
Michael Edmondson, who works in the state attorney's office in Palm Beach County, said castle-doctrine claims have increased since the law took effect three years ago.
"You would rarely see a case prior to the change of the statute here in Florida," Edmondson said. "I can recollect a half dozen cases in the last year or so. Some successful. Some not."
Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the NRA, dismissed concerns about the law being misused or misinterpreted, saying all cases are reviewed by law enforcement authorities.
The laws have become popular in a country that's grown increasingly anxious, said Mat Heck, prosecuting attorney for Montgomery County in Ohio, where a castle doctrine law went into effect in September.
"There really is a change in perception of public safety after 9/11," Heck said. "Citizens are just anxious. They fear attacks, not only from the terrorists abroad, but from residents here in our own country."
A lack of confidence in the justice system and the perception that defendants' rights overshadow victims' are other reasons cited in the NDAA report.
Heck said his state's law pertains to a person's home and car, and is only applied when someone has unlawfully entered.
"We tried to make it somewhat restrictive so it wasn't like the old wild, wild West," Heck said.
Pannu is free on $50,000 bond and has returned to work at the store, where jugs of candy clutter the cashier's counter and pictures of Pannu standing with $1,000 winners of scratch-off games are posted on the bulletproof barrier that separated him from Hawthorne on Aug. 17.
"The real debate is 'Can you kill a man for shoplifting?'" said Dennis Sweet, a Jackson attorney representing Hawthorne's family in a lawsuit against Pannu and A&H Food Mart.
"The guy was in his truck leaving," Sweet said. "He posed no danger."