KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A white homeowner pleaded not guilty Wednesday in the shooting of a Black teenager, Ralph Yarl, after Yarl mistakenly rang his doorbell in an attack that has put renewed focus on "stand your ground" laws around the country.
Andrew Lester, 84, appeared briefly before a circuit court judge in Clay County, Missouri, after surrendering to authorities on Tuesday on felony charges of assault in the first degree and armed criminal action. He was released on $200,000 bail later that day.
Lester, wearing a blue and tan jacket and matching pants, was in the courtroom for less than 10 minutes and was surrounded by four guards. He used a cane and limped slowly to the front of the courtroom when his case was called and mumbled his responses to the judge.
The judge ordered him to surrender his passport and said he can't own a firearm and must have no contact with Yarl.
Lester remains under bond supervision. No date was set for a preliminary hearing.
If found guilty, Lester faces a maximum sentence of life in prison on the assault charge and three to 15 years on the gun charge.
The shooting occurred late Thursday evening, when Yarl, 16, went to pick up his two twin brothers from a home in a neighborhood of Kansas City known as the Northland. But instead of going to the home at NE 115th Terrace, he went to NE 115th Street, where Lester lives, by mistake.
After ringing the doorbell at around 10 p.m., Yarl was confronted by the homeowner and shot through a glass door, according to a probable cause statement filed by police. He was struck in the head and then in the arm after falling, according to prosecutors.
Lester told investigators that he had gone to bed when the doorbell rang, then grabbed his .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver before going to the front door, the probable cause statement said.
Lester said he saw a Black male he didn't know pulling on the exterior storm door handle and thought his home was being broken into. He fired twice through the glass door, police wrote. Then, the male ran away, and Lester told police he used his home phone to dial 911. He said he saw a car in his driveway that he believed belonged to the male, but didn't see anyone inside.
No words were exchanged, Lester told police.
Lester said firing his weapon "was the last thing he wanted to do, but he was 'scared to death'" because of his age and the male's size, police wrote.
Lester said he lives alone. A police detective wrote in the probable cause statement that he noticed a security system in the home and took the hard drive to preserve any evidence, but later found the equipment had last captured video in June and was no longer functional.
Yarl gave police a different version of events when he was initially interviewed at the hospital following the shooting. He told a detective that he did not pull on the door and that he rang the doorbell and was waiting when an armed man appeared in front of him.
Yarl "stated he was immediately shot in the head and fell to the ground," police wrote. He told police that he was then shot in the arm and then ran away, according to the document. Yarl reported to police that he heard a voice say, "Don't come around here," police wrote.
Yarl suffered permanent physical injuries from a cracked skull, loss of brain tissue and scarring, but is expected to make close to a full recovery, a family attorney, Lee Merritt, said Tuesday.
Outstanding questions still surround the case, according to Merritt, including why Lester was released within two hours after his initial questioning and why prosecutors haven't clarified whether the shots were fired from inside or outside of the house.
"We're frustrated with law enforcement and their failure to take responsibility for the denial of this family's due process. No one has owned up to it," Merritt said. "This 16-year-old unarmed boy didn’t actually pose a threat. But far too often in America, his skin alone is his weapon."
Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson said there was a racial component to the case, but there was nothing in the charging documents to specify whether the shooting was racially motivated.
A spokesman for Thompson's office also said Lester wouldn't be charged with a hate crime because it would be a lesser degree of felony than what he has been charged with.
It's unclear if Lester plans to mount a defense under the state's "stand your ground" law, which does not require a person defending life or property to retreat before taking violent action.
Lester's legal representation could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
The case, imbued with racial overtones, has drawn outrage from Black celebrities who demanded that authorities make an arrest in the shooting and prompted rallies by young people in support of Yarl, an honors student who said he wants to study chemical engineering in college.
President Joe Biden called Yarl and his mother on Monday to talk about his recovery and a commitment to halting gun violence.
Deon J. Hampton reported from Kansas City, and Erik Ortiz from New York.