By Serena Maria Daniels
DETROIT (Reuters) - A Detroit man was charged with murder on Tuesday after allegedly killing two people who were trying to evict members of his family from a foreclosed home, in a case that highlights the city's struggle to revive blighted neighborhoods.
Judge Ruth Carter of Michigan's District Court denied a defense motion to reduce the charges to involuntary manslaughter and scheduled a Jan. 13 arraignment for Alonzo Long, 22.
Long is accused of shooting dead Howard Franklin, 72, and his daughter Catherine, 37, on the evening of Nov. 28. The Franklins had confronted the occupants of a home they purchased through a Wayne County tax auction.
But Long's advocates said he was defending his family and they were legal occupants of the home. They also noted the Franklins were armed when they went to the home.
Long's defense attorney told the judge in a hearing last week that Long was called to the house after his family and the Franklins clashed over light fixtures. When he arrived, he heard shots in the dimly lighted house and responded by shooting back.
The deadly exchange has housing advocates and law enforcement alike concerned as Michigan grapples to refine rules on evictions that can follow government auctions of foreclosed homes and end in conflict.
As financially troubled Detroit tries to revive decaying neighborhoods, the county is auctioning off thousands of homes for as little as $500 each.
"I'm sorry that two generations were shot up in a matter of minutes, but I feel that certain procedures should be followed in a court of law. You can't just walk up to someone and tell them to leave out of a house," said one of Long's supporters, Sheila Dapremont, a demolition contractor from Detroit.
Relatives of the Franklins declined to comment.
New laws that took effect in September are supposed to help home buyers by making squatting a serious crime. Rightful owners can now file criminal, rather than civil, complaints to remove people, and repeat offenders could face felony charges.
In Detroit, where 40 percent of the population is poor, more than half of the 62,000 homes expected to be foreclosed on for unpaid taxes in 2015 are still occupied.
Sometimes occupants are former owners with nowhere else to go. Others are illegal trespassers or low-income renters without formal lease agreements with the former owner.
The new law allows a landlord to forcibly enter the premises if the occupant took possession by squatting, which housing advocates say is dangerous as illustrated by the Franklins' deaths.
"It's a terrible law," said Ted Phillips, attorney and director of the United Community Housing Coalition. He said it encourages people to take matters into their own hands because there is no mechanism to determine who is legitimately in a house.
But Michigan State Representative Kurt Heise who wrote the new laws said they should have resolved any confusion about a landlord's rights.
"Tenants, or squatters I should say, in many cases are very sophisticated," Heise said. "They have been coached by advocates to raise issues and they ... basically know how to game the system."
Police say they do not feel qualified to distinguish who is a trespasser, a former owner or an informal renter.
"The new law puts everyone in a precarious situation," said Detroit Police Sergeant Michael Woody. "If you were never legally evicted, does that make you a squatter? How do you leave that on a police department to determine?"
(Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Cynthia Osterman)