Friday, February 7, 2014

GENUINE SELF-DEFENSE

Because there has been much discussion in the press recently about self-defense and Stand Your Ground, I thought it might give some context to the discussion if I gave some examples of genuine cases of self-defense. I was the defense attorney in Case #1 and the prosecutor in Cases #2, 3, & 4. You can look at these cases for yourselves, compare them with some of the currently celebrated cases, and draw your own conclusions. I have included cases where ill-advised actions on the part of the shooter contributed to the killing. As I did in my last blog post, I am going to adopt a convention of creative nonfiction and use pseudonyms for the actors. This has less to do with trying to keep from embarrassing people than it does with the fact that I can’t remember the names of most of these people.

CASE # 1: Bar fights were common back in the early 70’s when I first began the practice of law, and a high percentage of my caseload consisted of shootings and cuttings. The prosecutor had what I thought was an unreasonable attitude toward murder. If you killed someone, you were going to get prosecuted for first degree murder. The prosecutor's office seemed to adhere to the simple formula "Point the gun + Pull the trigger = Premeditation." I could usually get my clients convicted of either manslaughter or second degree murder back in those days, but some of them actually got off. Benjamin Franklin Coolidge was one who got off. It all started at a dance hall which served liquor. Coolidge had gone there to have a good time and dance with the pretty ladies. Trouble was, he was dancing with the wrong lady. Her boyfriend began to try to pick a fight, and Coolidge decided it was time to go home. When he went into the parking lot, he noticed that the boyfriend had come out of the bar after him. Walking briskly to his car, Coolidge walked around and opened the driver’s side door. This put his car between him and the boyfriend. Coolidge could not possibly maneuver his car out of its parking spot and onto the highway before the boyfriend was upon him. As the boyfriend began to charge across the parking lot toward Coolidge, he reached into the car and pulled out his sawed-off shotgun. Resting the gun on the roof, he shot the boyfriend full in the chest. He then broke the shotgun open, reloaded, and walked to stand over the body. “Somebody call the police,” he ordered, “And the first one of you that tries to take the gun out of that dead man’s hand will join him on the ground.” When the police arrived, the deceased still had his pistol gripped firmly in his hand. Coolidge immediately dropped his shotgun, held up his hands and told the police to be sure and get the deceased’s gun. He was arrested on the spot, but the judge released him on his own recognizance after a preliminary hearing. The only charge the state filed was possession of a short barreled shotgun. If Coolidge’s barrel had only been a half inch longer, he wouldn’t have been sentenced to prison.

CASE # 2: Basal McKinney considered himself a man’s man. He could drink and fight with the best of them, and he wasn’t above shooting or stabbing people. He had several bullets in his body, souvenirs of shooting scrapes he had been in. The next-to-the last time he got shot, the bullet damaged his spinal cord, rendering him a paraplegic. This injury somewhat cramped his style for lying out in bars and fighting, so he retired to his singlewide trailer in the deer woods, where he pursued his two hobbies of drinking himself senseless and cursing people out on the CB radio. When he was sober he was an okay guy, and most of the people in the vicinity liked him enough to put up with his CB rants. One Saturday night as Josh Campbell drove his pickup through the woods, he got into a CB conversation with McKinney. They bantered back and forth for some time, with the language getting more and more explicit as the conversation progressed. McKinney invited Campbell to his singlewide for a gunfight. Campbell said okay, he’d be right over. Campbell thought it was just talk, but McKinney was serious. McKinney got his sawed-off shotgun and wheeled down the ramp to his driveway, where he took up a position awaiting Campbell. It wasn’t long before Campbell pulled up in the driveway and saw McKinney sitting in his wheelchair at the end. The next thing he saw was McKinney raising the shotgun and shooting his windshield out. Campbell did several things at once. He threw the car in reverse, floorboarded it, and returned fire with a 9 mm pistol. When he had gotten a safe distance away, he stopped and called 911. He gave the police a full statement, swearing that McKinney was his friend and that he really thought McKinney was joking about the gunfight. I believed him. When we got to McKinney’s singlewide, he was still sitting in the wheelchair right where Campbell had first seen him, but he was dead. One of Campbell’s wild shots had destroyed the femoral artery in McKinney’s left leg and he had bled out. McKinney’s housemate had taken the shotgun and thrown it onto the roof of the singlewide to try to make it look like Campbell had shot an unarmed man, but we broke his story down and he finally told us where to find the shotgun. Campbell took us up on our invitation to testify before the grand jury, and the grand jury no-billed the case.

CASE # 3: Joe Schmo’s wife was unfaithful, and Joe was unhappy. The boyfriend was a big, strong man, and Joe wasn’t. When Joe objected to the affair, the boyfriend beat him up. I don’t recall what precipitated the event, but one night the boyfriend came to Joe’s singlewide to beat him up again. Frightened, Joe armed himself with a single-shot shotgun while his wife admitted the boyfriend to the trailer. When Joe came out to the combination kitchen/living room, he told the boyfriend to leave. The boyfriend picked up a wine bottle off of the serving bar, got the bottle by the neck to use as a club and approached Joe. Joe told the boyfriend not to come any closer. The boyfriend raised the bottle threateningly and said “You don’t have the guts to shoot.” The boyfriend was wrong. Joe immediately called 911. When I arrived on the scene, Joe was standing on the front porch sobbing uncontrollably. The boyfriend was lying on the living room floor with the bottle near his outstretched hand, and the wife was taking a nap on the sofa not ten feet from the body. The grand jury no-billed the case.

CASE # 4: Frank Leonard and Rebecca McGregor were happily married newlyweds, but Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend was not happy. He stalked the pair for some time, threatening them, making harassing phone calls, and otherwise tormenting them. On the fatal evening, Frank and Rebecca were at home in their singlewide trailer when the ex-boyfriend drove up and began pounding on the front door, announcing his intent to kill Frank. Frank armed himself and called 911. As the old saying goes, “When seconds matter, the police are just minutes away.” Before the police arrived, the ex-boyfriend had broken out a window and crawled into the house. As the ex-boyfriend approached Frank, he saw that Frank was armed. “You don’t have the guts to shoot,” the ex-boyfriend said.  The ex-boyfriend was wrong. Frank shot, and he shot more than once. When the ex-boyfriend fell to the floor, no longer a threat, Frank immediately began administering first aid. He placed a pillow under the ex-boyfriend’s head and did what he could to stop the bleeding. It wasn’t enough. The ex-boyfriend was dead on arrival at the local hospital. No charges were filed.

I could go on giving example after example of people who acted in genuine self-defense, but I think you can see the pattern by now.

NOTE: I’ve handled several cases over the years where the deceased’s last words were something to the effect that the killer didn’t have the guts to shoot. This is a difference between real life and the movies. In the movies, whenever the potential shootee tells a potential shooter that he/she doesn’t have enough guts to shoot, the would-be shooter drops the gun and begins to cry. In real life, if somebody points a gun at you, never tell them they don’t have the guts to shoot.