Empire Of Dirt

Two lives end on a gravel road
29

It was a Sunday afternoon in mid-October, the sort of afternoon many of us go shooting. It’s what David* had in mind when he called his cousin Melanie and invited her over. They had an excellent backstop — a steep bank cut into a hillside behind a house David owned but was leasing to another cousin who was a convicted felon. It usually kept David and Melanie from shooting there, but on this afternoon, he was gone, freeing them up to use the property.

There was a hitch. David’s uncle Randall, who lived just down the hill (well under 100 yards away), was tired of the sound of shooting and had angrily confronted David over it before. There had been a serious argument a month earlier, during which Randall had reportedly threatened David with a gun.

Bad Blood

Some events in life offer only a snapshot of the person involved and this is one of them: Randall had a well-known history of confrontations, some violent, with family and others. He was also known to carry a small pistol in his front pants pocket. Knowing her uncle and the history, including how he disliked them shooting, Melanie asked if it was really such a good idea. After David reassured her it would be fine, she and her friend Steven gathered their .22s and made the half-hour drive to the makeshift range. David was there with his father, who, like David’s mother, was disabled and relied heavily on David. Appearing unworried about his uncle’s prior complaints about the noise, David had brought explosive targets along with the 7.62mm SKS he was shooting.

Once they started shooting, it wasn’t long before the expected result occurred: Randall, who had been sitting on his front porch with his wife, went inside for a shotgun and fired it a few times in an attempt to get the others to stop shooting. When it failed, (even though David, Melanie and Steve noticed it) Randall called 911 and told the dispatcher he believed there was a convicted felon shooting. The deputy who arrived verified no felon was present and there was no safety risk. He told the shooting party what they already knew — Randall was the one who had called — before pulling away.

Escalation … And Tragedy

Ten minutes later the officer was back. Starting just below the embankment atop which sat David’s house was a line of nickel .45-caliber shell casings stretching some 30-plus feet down the gravel road, leading to where Randall lay unmoving on the side of the road. When the officer asked the group what had happened, David spoke: “I shot him.”

As with any court case, the facts have to be pieced together from several witnesses who all see things from different perspectives. The mosaic is as follows: Randall was still clearly angry after the officer left and began yelling toward David’s house, initially exchanging words with Melanie before David, hearing the commotion, came to the front of the house holding his SKS. Randall cursed David, who likewise cursed him in return. Randall invited David down to the gravel road to fight and David countered by telling him to come up the hill to his house. Saying he wasn’t stupid, Randall refused. David then obliged, laying down the rifle before going down the hill and onto the road with Randall; at least one witness said Randall had a long gun he likewise laid down. At some point after David came down to the road to fight, he asked Randall if he had a gun and Randall said he did not, but he did put his hand in his pocket, telling David he would kill him.

No one had seen David slip the GLOCK .45 into the small of his back, but everyone saw him pull it out: David’s father, who said he tried to grab David’s arm to stop him; David’s cousin Melanie and her friend; Randall, who turned to run; and Randall’s wife and son who watched in horror as David followed after him, firing as he went. Randall, hit several times, collapsed in the roadway. His gun empty, David reloaded and continued to move forward until he was standing over Randall. As Randall turned his head upward as though to speak, David emptied his GLOCK again, firing four of the six rounds through the back of Randall’s head while he lay on the ground. One of those bullets was later recovered from the gravel road and blood on it was DNA matched to Randall, through whom it had passed. A small can of mace was found in Randall’s left hand, and a small pocketknife in his pocket. He did not have a gun at the time of the shooting.

Consequences

Randall was shot a total of 10 times, with nine bullets entering his body from the rear. A 10th bullet struck him on the outside of his right wrist, stopping in the bones of his forearm. While there is reason to think it was the first bullet to hit him, there is no way to know for certain, nor to know which way the arm was oriented or Randall was facing when it hit. The bullets were 230-grain Winchester jacketed hollow points, believed by the ballistics lab to be SXT or Black Talon projectiles.

David’s trial lasted some two weeks and ended with his conviction for felony murder after the jury rejected his defense of self-defense. While it’s not possible to pick one single aspect of the case that led to the verdict, several legal principles, combined, led to the end result.

Legal Learnings

The first principle is if you initiate a confrontation, you may not generally claim self-defense for an act of violence committed during the confrontation. Like many legal principles, there are exceptions and qualifications, but this is the general rule. In this case, David knew his uncle was easily angered by his shooting, and could reasonably expect it would cause yet another confrontation with him. Having been warned by his cousin, and then doubling down by using exploding targets, created the image he was willingly (if not willfully) antagonizing his uncle. This doesn’t mean David did not have the legal right to shoot on his own property. The way he exercised this right, though, pushed the snowball down the hill, leading to tragedy.

The second principle is willingly choosing to fight someone is called mutual combat, not self-defense. If you sign up to fight, you own the consequences. David and Randall both exchanged swear words and offers to do bodily harm to the other. Randall had specifically refused to come onto David’s property (likely out of fear of being shot by David, who was holding a rifle), and insisted they meet in a neutral location to fight. Had David remained at the top of the hill, there would have been no altercation in the roadway. He could have simply put his hearing protection on and walked back around the house to keep shooting, leaving Randall to yell in the road by himself and the day would have ended very differently. But choosing to go down the hill to the road to fight changed the nature of what he was doing from self-defense to something else.

The third principle is self-defense must be reasonable, and according to the law applicable to this case, reasonably necessary. With all due regard to Raylan Givens, people commonly use the word “justified” interchangeably with self-defense, but it’s not quite right. Justification seems to imply if someone does a certain thing you get to respond in a certain way. The better reading is not whether a violent response is justified, but required.

David’s response was one of overwhelming violence delivered against a man who was fleeing from him. The wounds were what you would expect from a large-caliber, expanding bullet. Having attended the autopsy, I can tell you firsthand they were horrifying, as was David’s choice to reload and shoot Randall repeatedly in the back of the head as he lay face first on the ground. Even had David not provoked him, not willingly joined him to fight and been in reasonable fear for his life when Randall reached into his pocket, Randall was clearly no threat by that time. Whether Randall would have survived his wounds from the first magazine is an open question; whether he still presented a lethal threat to David is not.

There are practical lessons from the other side as well. Whether you consider Randall’s behavior to be responding to provocation or initiating it, it’s unwise to start (or join in) any kind of altercation, much less to threaten someone. This is true whether they are visibly armed or not — as David was not after he laid down his rifle, but before presenting his hidden GLOCK.

I don’t know if Randall wanted people to think he was a formidable man, someone not to be trifled with, but others did see him this way, including his killer. There’s a pointed lesson here: Gun Culture 2.0, with its focus on self-defense and concealed carry, often leads people to post photos and videos on social media suggesting how ready, willing and able they are to use violence. Among the many risks of trying to convince people you are dangerous is the one they may believe you. And act accordingly.

Two lives ended that day on the road. Randall’s son and wife last saw him alive as he was being shot to death in front of them. The last time David’s father saw him as a free man was as he desperately clawed at David’s arm to stop him, before David lost both his freedom and his ability to ever again help the parents who needed him so badly.

The last I remember of David is the thumping sound in the holding cell as he beat his head bloody against the concrete walls after being sentenced to life in prison. I was the prosecutor. 

Editor’s Note: First names in this story were changed in the interest of privacy.

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