KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Ralph Yarl was shot at point-blank range in the head by a white homeowner but miraculously survived the bullet to his skull, the attorney for the family of the Black teenager said. As Yarl, 16, recovers at home, the 84-year-old owner of the Kansas City, Missouri, home where Yarl mistakenly went to pick up his brothers faces his first court appearance Wednesday.
Andrew Lester is charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action. He could face life in prison if convicted. Lester does not yet have an attorney listed, according to Missouri’s online court reporting system.
“Do you all understand that this 16-year-old boy was shot at point blank range in the face?” Yarl attorney Lee Merritt asked the crowd of about 150 supporters Tuesday at a downtown rally. “A bullet traveled from (Lester’s) gun less than 5 feet into his upper temple, penetrated his skull, and they scraped bullet fragments off his frontal lobe on Thursday. On Saturday, he was home playing with his dog.”
One sign at the rally read, “He is only 16.” Another: “Is this what Kansas City has come to? Stop gun violence.”
Lester turned himself in Tuesday and was later released on bond. Conditions of his bond include monitoring of his cellphone, prohibition for possessing weapons “of any type,” and a stipulation that Lester not have contact with Yarl or his family.
Merritt and some civil rights leaders urged a hate crime charge. He said that Yarl was shot “because he was armed only with his Black skin.”
But Clay County prosecutor Zachary Thompson said first-degree assault is a higher-level crime with a longer sentence of up to life in prison. Meanwhile, it was unclear if the U.S. Department of Justice was weighing a federal hate crime charge. Messages seeking comment from the Justice Department were not returned.
The shooting happened about 10 p.m. Thursday. Police Chief Stacey Graves said that Yarl’s parents asked him to pick up his twin brothers at a home on 115th Terrace.
Yarl, an honors student and all-state band member, 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 shot Yarl in the forehead, and then shot him again in the right forearm.
Lester told police he lives alone and was “scared to death” when he saw a Black male on the porch and thought someone was trying to break in, according to the probable cause statement. But Merritt said Yarl is hardly an imposing figure.
“The question is, at 5-8 and 140 pounds, what did Andrew Lester look out and see?” Merritt asked. “The answer is, he saw a Black person. And for him, that was enough justification. And that would just be a tragedy except law enforcement agreed with him.”
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, the statement said.
James Lynch was the neighbor who found Yarl. He didn’t respond to an interview request, but his wife confirmed an NBC News report that said Lynch heard shouting and saw Yarl banging on the door of another home. “I heard somebody screaming, ‘Help, help, I’ve been shot!’” Lynch, who is white, told NBC. The father of three ran out and found Yarl covered in blood. Lynch checked his pulse and, when another neighbor came out with towels, helped stem the bleeding until paramedics arrived.
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,” he tweeted. “We’ve got to keep up the fight against gun violence.”
Prosecutor Thompson said Monday that there was a “racial component” to the shooting. He did not elaborate. Assistant prosecutor Alexander Higginbotham said in an email Tuesday that “there is not a racial element to the legal charges that were filed.”
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.”
Legal experts agreed with Thompson that charging Lester with a hate crime would have potentially meant a shorter sentence if he is convicted. Washington University School of Law professor Peter Joy said the state hate crime law is used only to enhance low-level felony or misdemeanor charges.
Experts expect Lester’s lawyers will claim self-defense under Missouri’s “stand your ground” law, which allows for the use of deadly force if a person fears for their life. Missouri is among roughly 30 states with such statutes.