Shot In The Back


From demonstrative video made for a murder trial: John Strayer’s gun is at low ready,
Mas is in attack posture with blade …

From the mid-1980s to 2019, as an expert witness I’ve had to explain — in court — how the suspect managed to get shot from behind, yet it was still justifiable homicide by the defendant. It’s an uphill climb. In virtually every culture, the “shot in the back” is seen as an indication of cowardly murder. Blame the silver screen in part. Watch the old noir movies and notice when an actor is “shot,” he usually does a slow swoon to the floor with no blood visible.

Fast forward to the Sam Peckinpah years, and movies like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, where they used so much slow motion critics coined the phrase “slow dance on the killing ground” for such scenes. Those images are burned into the collective American mind.

Now factor in from an involved officer’s first telling of what happened, it takes longer to say it than it took to happen in the first place. Then add the months or even years between the shooting and the trial, and the many days of the trial itself. As little as one critical second in time is exhaustively dissected, and you can understand why a jury is vulnerable to the argument from a prosecutor or plaintiff’s lawyer the shooter had all kinds of time to see the now-deceased suspect was turning away — and should have held fire.

It simply doesn’t work this way. Those who would judge need to know, because it’s “not within the common knowledge” as they say in court. It’s not something the average person could be expected to figure out by themselves.

… John raises gun to shoot, Mas reflexively turns away, and the dot from the LaserGrip
(circled) shows the “shot” hits Mas behind lateral midline — all in an instant.

Intersecting Loops

We’ve all heard of the OODA Loop concept, conceived by the great trainer of fighter pilots Col. John Boyd in the mid-20th Century to explain how we react to things. We Oberve: Our first perception of the thing we have to react to. We Orient: What does this mean? We Decide: This is what I now must do. And finally, We Act: At this point, we begin the physical part of our response.

The generally quoted “quarter second” for average reaction time is about right, though some folks are naturally faster or slower. However, this is reaction to anticipated stimulus. Your hand is hovering over the microphone of the timer, ready to slap it the instant you hear the beep you are listening for. You’ve started already at the ”A” of the OODA Loop. The situation we’re talking about here is reaction to unanticipated stimulus. A huge cognitive element is now added, a full OODA Loop. Remember: If you thought he was going to turn away, you wouldn’t have started pulling the trigger at all!

The most thorough studies of reaction to unanticipated stimulus seem to come from traffic safety research. Because of the full OODA required, figure three times as long as anticipated stimulus response, or 0.75 of a single second. In one study in Australia, response to unanticipated stimulus ranged from a low of 0.70 to 1.1 seconds, and some studies have found higher.

The next element is how quickly the opponent can turn away from the pain of your first shots or just the fear of your gun rising up toward him. If he’s quartered to you in a typical fighting posture, his head and upper torso can turn enough in about a quarter second for your bullet to strike behind “lateral midline,” the demarcation line between front and back of head and body used by MDs and attorneys alike. If he’s squarely facing you chest to chest, figure roughly half a second for the movement to take place.

Fast Shooting

The third element is speed of fire. A single shot can be fired in an instant if already on-target and anticipating a need to shoot. Say, 0.25 seconds starting with finger on trigger, and another 0.10 added if the trigger finger starts on the frame. John Farnam’s early police training research in the 1970s, long since proven repeatedly, shows the average person can fire four shots in one second, timing from the first, with a DAO handgun. They can shoot five in one second with the shorter pull and reset of most semi-autos.

Put it all together, you see why it’s literally not humanly possible to stop shooting when you’re firing as fast as you can at a rate of 0.25 to 0.20 between shots. Your assailant’s lateral midline crosses your line of fire in as little as 0.25 to 0.5 seconds, and takes you at least 0.7 seconds to stop shooting. That’s why the cop-killer took the hero cop’s fifth and last bullet square in the back in this month’s Ayoob Files shooting. And it’s why it’s imperative to know how to explain this to the triers of the facts.

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