US man charged with shooting Black teen pleads not guilty

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Andrew Lester stands for his initial court appearance before Judge Louis Angles in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 19 [Pool TV via Reuters]

Andrew Lester, 84, faces first-degree assault and armed criminal action charges for shooting 16-year-old Ralph Yarl.

An 84-year-old white man accused of shooting and wounding a Black teenager who mistakenly walked up to his house has pleaded not guilty to felony charges during his first court appearance in the United States case.

Kansas City resident Andrew Lester appeared during a brief arraignment in a Clay County courtroom in Missouri, online court records show.

He faces one charge of first-degree assault, which carries a maximum sentence of life, and one count of armed criminal action, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The case garnered national attention after Lester shot 16-year-old Ralph Yarl on the doorstep of his suburban home last Thursday night. Yarl’s family has maintained that the high-school junior had simply arrived at the wrong house, while looking to pick up his two younger siblings.

Despite being shot in the head and arm, Yarl is expected to make a full recovery, Shaun King, an author and civil rights activist assisting the family, said on Wednesday.

“He’s home and looks great. Ralph is a WALKING MIRACLE with a head of steel,” King wrote in an Instagram post featuring a photo of the teenager with his lawyer, Lee Merritt.

⁣”Ralph suffered a traumatic brain injury that he is still recovering from. Had the bullet hit his head a fraction of an inch in any other direction he would probably be dead right now.”

The White House announced earlier this week that President Joe Biden spoke with Yarl and “shared his hope for a swift recovery”. King said the phone call between the president and teenager was a “beautiful, thoughtful, meaningful, compassionate conversation”.

The ill-fated encounter occurred when Yarl approached Lester’s house at about 10pm local time. His younger siblings were at a nearby home with a similar address, according to authorities.

Lester fired two shots through a glass door with a .32-calibre revolver, prosecutors said. Yarl did not cross the threshold, and it was not believed any words were exchanged before the gunfire, according to Clay County prosecutor Zachary Thompson.

However, local media, citing court documents, reported that Yarl said during a police interview at the hospital that Lester told him: “Don’t come around here.”

The case faced scrutiny early on, with activists questioning why Lester was released quickly after the incident and not charged until four days later.

Lester was initially taken into custody, placed on a 24-hour investigative hold, and then released pending an interview with Yarl and the collection of forensic evidence. His swift release fueled days of protests.

Lester surrendered to police on Tuesday but was subsequently released on a $200,000 bond.

With his lawyer at his side on Wednesday, Lester walked up to the bench with the help of a cane and briefly spoke with the judge, video footage of the session showed.

Thompson has said the case has “a racial component”, without elaborating. Prosecutors have not filed hate-crime charges, which carry lesser penalties in Missouri than the two counts Lester faces.

Gwen Grant, the CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said the group would be calling for a federal hate-crime investigation.

“We have a race problem in Missouri and Kansas City in the United States. Clearly, you know it all points to the fact that the Black people in America have to deal with this type of racism and discrimination daily,” Grant told Al Jazeera earlier this week.

In a similar case, a homeowner in upstate New York fatally wounded a 20-year-old woman on Saturday when she turned onto the wrong driveway while looking for a friend’s home.

Two Texas cheerleaders were also shot northeast of Austin, Texas, after they got into the wrong car in a grocery store parking lot early on Tuesday. In both the New York and Texas incidents, the shooters have been charged with felonies.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA, REUTERS

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