Teenager Who Rang Wrong Doorbell Faces Homeowner Who Shot Him

Ralph Yarl spoke softly but firmly as he recounted the April night when he rang the wrong doorbell and was met with gunfire.

Sitting in the witness box of a small wood-paneled courtroom on Thursday, Ralph, now 17, said he had set out on a short drive to pick up his younger siblings from their friend’s house in Kansas City, Mo. He told how he had pulled into a driveway, pressed the bell and waited. And then, when the wooden interior door finally started to open, he described placing his hand on the glass storm door, only to retreat when he spotted a stranger grasping a gun.

“He holds it up and says, ‘Don’t ever come here again,’” Ralph recalled during a preliminary hearing in the criminal case against the homeowner, Andrew D. Lester, who was sitting perhaps 20 feet away in court.

The defendant, who is white, does not deny shooting the teenager, who is Black. But Mr. Lester has pleaded not guilty and claimed self-defense, setting the stage for a closely watched trial after Judge Louis Angles ruled on Thursday that there was enough evidence to proceed.

The shooting of Ralph, a high school marching band member, by Mr. Lester, a retiree in his 80s, led to protests in Kansas City this spring and a national outcry, with President Biden inviting Ralph to visit the White House. Many residents and politicians in Kansas City, which has a long history of segregation, believed that race played a role in the shooting, and the county prosecutor said early on that “there was a racial component to the case.”

But issues of race barely came up on Thursday inside Judge Angles’s courtroom in Liberty, a Kansas City suburb. The hours of testimony from neighbors, police officers, doctors and Ralph himself focused on the sequence of events that night, the collection of evidence from Mr. Lester’s house and the surgery that removed bullet fragments from Ralph’s skull.

Mr. Lester, who was 84 at the time of the shooting, is charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action, both felonies, and could face life in prison if convicted. He was allowed to remain free on bond but was ordered to appear for an arraignment on Sept. 20.

The case against Mr. Lester is the rare one in which there does not seem to be much disagreement about the underlying facts.

Prosecutors and Mr. Lester’s lawyer agreed that Ralph meant no harm when he rang the doorbell after mistaking the defendant’s home on Northeast 115th Street for the friend’s house, which had the same street number on nearby Northeast 115th Terrace.

And there was no dispute about who fired the revolver, leaving Ralph with wounds to his head and arm. Mr. Lester, who did not testify, was heard on audio from a 911 call telling a dispatcher that he “just had somebody ring my damn doorbell” and “I shot him.”

But the case is likely to rest on whether Missouri’s self-defense statutes give Mr. Lester legal cover.

Mr. Lester’s lawyer, Steven Salmon, said that the shooting was the tragic product of a “mutual mistake,” in which an old man with health problems found a stranger on his porch late at night and reasonably, if incorrectly, thought that the visitor posed a threat.

“A terrible event occurred,” Mr. Salmon said. “It’s not a criminal event, however.”

Zachary Thompson, the Clay County prosecutor, told Judge Angles that self-defense did not apply in this case.

“You do not have the right to shoot an unarmed kid through a door two times,” Mr. Thompson said.

Shortly after the shooting this spring, a probable cause statement from a police detective said that Ralph had told the police that he did not pull on Mr. Lester’s storm door, contrary to what Mr. Lester had told investigators.

In a subsequent interview with detectives, and again in court this week, Ralph acknowledged that he had touched the storm door’s handle, thinking he was at a family friend’s house and would be welcomed inside.

On Thursday, Ralph testified that the storm door never opened and that he backed away once he saw Mr. Lester inside with a gun.

“He shoots the first time,” Ralph recalled, “and the bullet goes into my head, and I fall to the ground,” where he said he was shot for a second time.

When pressed by Mr. Salmon about why he changed his account, Ralph said his first interview had taken place in the hospital shortly after he had emerged from an operating room.

“I had just come out of brain surgery and was coming off the effects of anesthesia,” said Ralph, now a high school senior, who wore a blue dress shirt, looked straight ahead and spoke calmly as he was questioned.

The shooting happened amid a backdrop of rampant gun violence in Kansas City, where there have been at least 130 criminal homicides this year, according to police data. This year is on pace to be one of the deadliest in the city’s history.

But that violence is not spread evenly, and Ralph was shot in a suburbanlike part of Kansas City’s Northland, closer to cornfields than downtown, with relatively low crime rates.

Still, Mr. Salmon said his client, whose house was outfitted with a no-soliciting sign and security cameras that were not saving footage, was rightfully unnerved when he heard someone ring his doorbell after 9 p.m.

Mr. Lester, who walked with a cane in court, lived alone and had already gone to bed that night, Mr. Salmon said.

Neighbors of Mr. Lester who testified on Thursday said they also had been fearful when they heard Ralph outside yelling that he had been shot and needed help. The teenager went to two neighbors’ doors but was not allowed inside.

The neighbors, each of whom dialed 911 and requested an ambulance, said they were unsure what was going on and did not know if it would be safe to answer the door or go outside to help.

After being turned away from the houses, Ralph went back to the street, where he lay down. Some neighbors eventually went out to him. One woman said she applied pressure to the teenager’s bleeding head with towels and talked to him about marching band while waiting for an ambulance.

On the witness stand on Thursday, Ralph said he now felt “significantly better” and had a strong support system. But he said he still had some lingering mental and physical effects from the shooting.

Dr. Jo Ling Goh, the pediatric neurosurgeon who removed part of the bullet from Ralph’s fractured skull, said the teenager faced a risk of significant complications in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Months later, she said, Ralph did not seem to have any neurological deficits. But she said he would have a divot in his forehead for the rest of his life.

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