Self Defense and the Stiffler Trial

Montana Shooting Sports Association
Montana Shooting Sports Association

Missoula, MT -( Dear MSSA Friends,

Several of you have asked me about my involvement in the recent State v. Stiffler trial in Helena. My friend Chris Rosenau has been kind enough to prepare an explanation of that for you.

Chris says: After reading about the recent Jim Stiffler trial in Helena where Mr. Stiffler came home to find an intruder, Thomas Johnson, in his home and subsequently shot Mr. Johnson, I was alarmed that someone could shoot an intruder in their own home and be prosecuted for it. I contacted my friend, Gary Marbut, to see what he knew about the trial and learned that he was an expert witness in the case. Because of his status, he was not able to discuss the case with me. However, after the trial, I was made privy to Gary’s extremely thorough, extensive, well thought out, deeply and painstakingly researched data and theories. The information was easy to understand for laymen, and it was very compelling.

Gary included a plethora of precise testing for bullet condition, bullet trajectory, body location based on bullet entry. He ran tests using a sound level meter to determine where the location of the shots came from based upon what witnesses heard on the road, trying to mimic what actually happened, and accounting for wind, temperature, humidity, etc. He used a turning mannequin at the test range to learn how realistic it was for a fleeing criminal to be facing the homeowner, turn quickly and end up with a bullet in the back, proving the shooter may not have intentionally shot a fleeing criminal. He used various mediums, one of which was FBI gel mimicking human tissue, to see what specific bullets from the weapon used would’ve looked like on impact, to try to show that one of the bullets the prosecution used to prove their case was in fact not fired in this exchange. He gave multiple alternative real life scenarios to put holes (no pun intended) in the prosecution’s case.

One of the most compelling bits of information he gave was how the brain works from the string of thought process, to decision making, to physical action/reaction. He explained the way in which the neurological signals travel through the body, the travel time from brain to finger, and how reversing that course given fear and adrenaline is virtually impossible.

Another compelling statement that I’m not sure if Gary was able to say to the jury was this: “There is a much more relevant ‘what if’ question that may validly be asked, and one that eclipses the one about Stiffler entering his own home. That is, what if Johnson had not made the conscious choice to commit a felony crime upon Stiffler and Stiffler’s home? What if Johnson had not elected to kick in Stiffler’s door and steal his stuff? Any person who wishes to play the ‘what if’ game should answer that question first.”

Thankfully for Mr. Stiffler, the result of the trial was a hung jury, with ten voting for acquittal and only two voting to convict. For those who were interested in this case, I thought the role Gary played was noteworthy and should be shared, as he won’t toot his own horn.

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Since this resulted in a “hung jury” the DA could always try the case again, although he probably won’t, given the expense and the fact that most jurors voted for acquittal. HOWEVER, since the charges have not actually been DROPPED by the DA, how does that impact Mr. Stiffler’s gun rights? For example, is he still considered to be “under indictment” for a violent crime (which would make him ineligible to purchase, or own, a firearm now?


seems to me if the jury did not convict, he is not guilty, and thus must be set free and be fully restored. State did not present sufficient evidence to convince even a simple majority of the jurors of defendant’s guilt. Thus he did not, under the law, commit a crime.