Longform

A LAW DIRTY HARRY WOULD LOVEIT COULD MAKE IT EASIER FOR EVERYONE TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

VALENTINE'S DAY 1987 hadn't been overly romantic for Roberta and David Korzep, but they seemed to be having a decent enough time.

The Yuma couple liked to play the dogs, and they decided to make a night of it at the local greyhound park. They went to the track early and dined on halibut as they pored over their racing forms.

When the last race was over, the Korzeps had broken even-a good night. They weren't in any rush to get home, as Roberta's 15-year-old son was away on a weekend camping trip. Anyway, they had hit it off at the track with a snowbird couple. The foursome adjourned to the popular Stardust Lounge for more drinks and conversation.

Gregarious and fun-loving, Roberta had the knack of loosening up those around her with rapid-fire banter. Her husband's personality was as different from hers as could be.

Courteous but reserved, almost introverted at times, David Korzep usually kept to himself in social settings. Even when he had too much to drink-which was often-David was no talker. He shined at games such as Trivial Pursuit, in which he could show what he knew without being the center of attention.

David had become one of the city of Yuma's top administrators after his retirement from the U.S. Air Force as a full colonel. At 55, he had a paunch and his hair was gray and thinning. But he still carried himself with the same athletic bearing as when he had quarterbacked the Naval Academy to victory in the 1955 Sugar Bowl.

Fifteen years younger than David, Roberta also was athletic-golf was her passion, and she played a mean game of racquetball. She worked in an office at the Yuma Proving Grounds.

This was the second marriage for both, and they were nearing their fourth wedding anniversary. Valentine's Day 1987 also marked another, unhappier milepost: It was the anniversary of David's divorce from first wife, Carol, with whom he had spent 26 years and raised a family. But if his past was on David's mind on February 14, 1987, he didn't show it at the dog track and, later, at the Stardust.

By the time they closed down the bar at 1 a.m., the Korzeps had polished off a good amount of liquor: David's blood-alcohol level would be tested at more than twice the legal driving limit, Roberta's at just under the limit. They said goodbye to their new snowbird friends and made plans to golf with them the next day.

The Korzeps then returned to their rented house in this sprawling desert city of 45,000 on the Arizona-California line. We have only Roberta's account of what happened next.

We know David Korzep died on the floor in his home, the victim of a single stab wound from a kitchen knife. We know Roberta Korzep was her husband's killer. We know David had physically abused Roberta in the past and had slapped her just before she stabbed him. We know Roberta claimed self-defense.

And we know a trial jury didn't buy it.
In May 1988, it convicted Roberta Korzep of manslaughter, which called for a minimum sentence of five years in prison. But even now, five years and 12 days after Roberta stabbed David to death, she has yet to serve a day behind bars. That's because of an Arizona law that prosecutors say allows people to kill first and ask questions later. It's been dubbed the "Make My Day" law.

Enacted in 1977, with additions in 1983 and 1991, the little-publicized "crime-prevention" law gives Arizonans a far wider berth to kill than the traditional laws of self-defense. Under the law, a person is presumed to have acted "reasonably" if he or she kills to prevent or halt several specified crimes-aggravated assault in Roberta Korzep's case.

"It is a Wild West law," says Yuma County chief criminal deputy Phil Hall, who has prosecuted Roberta Korzep. "It's something Dirty Harry would love to have backing him up. It's going to create utter confusion with juries."
The law gives new meaning to the old saw, "It's better to be tried by 12 than carried by six." You no longer have to be staring death in the face to legally blow someone away. You no longer have to be frightened. You no longer have to be facing physical danger at all.

The law is far more liberal than Arizona's self-defense statutes, which allow a person to use deadly force only in instances of absolute necessity. Many familiar with the Korzep case agree the law is a minefield for prosecutors in self-defense homicides.

"The legislature was looking at it as a law for crusaders," says Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Rudy Gerber. "The original intent of the crime-prevention law was to permit very limited use of force to prevent just a few crimes, not the laundry list they have now. As it's written now, it would let almost anyone off the hook-carte blanche killing."
Gerber was the author last December of a key appellate ruling in the Korzep case.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin