Wednesday, September 05, 2007

What is Self-Defense?

by Annette Dashofy

A recent local news story has struck a nerve with me. Maybe it’s because I know the accused. Or KNEW him. I went to high school with him.

A community a few miles from my home has been in the news lately, but that isn’t what caught my attention when I first read the headline in the newspaper. What hit me was the name of the accused. It was a name I knew.

This isn’t the first time I’ve known someone in the news. All too often, I’ve recognized the name of the victim of a crime in the local paper. On occasion, I’ve even recognized the name of the person committing the crime. But usually I see that name and think, well, I’m not surprised. He always WAS a little creepy.

But not this time. This time I read that a sweet, quiet guy that I was friends with in school had shotgunned a teen in the back. My first thought was: something had to have provoked him. He’s not the type to randomly blow holes in people.

I’m not going to mention his name. I don’t want to cause him or his family any more grief. But if you’re in the Pittsburgh area and have seen the news in the last week, you’ve heard the story. Two teen boys in masks confronted him as he returned home from work at 5:30AM. This was the second time. The first time, he’d been able to jump back in his car to avoid them. This time, they had a baseball bat and struck him with it as they demanded money.

My old friend’s mistake was in grabbing his gun and shooting as the teens left. He shot the kid in the back. The other kid took off. Apparently, he didn’t consider his wounded compadre worth the risk of getting a load of buckshot in his own butt. Can’t really blame him. No honor among thieves, as they say.

So because he didn’t go for his gun while under attack, at which point the kids very likely would have taken the weapon and used it on him instead, he is being charged with attempted homicide.

I know, I know. He was wrong. I admit it. Technically, he wasn’t defending himself. But these kids had gone after him before. He lives with his mother. He just wanted to put an end to the harassment.

This guy with the shotgun was not a Rambo or a Terminator. I remember him as a bit of a nerd. Not one of the COOL kids. That was what we had in common that made us friends. Nerds get picked on. Somehow, I suspect he’s still a little nerdy (as mentioned, he lives with his mom). I suspect that he couldn’t take it anymore. Some will call it vigilantism. Maybe it is a little. But in this case, I think more than likely it was fear that drove him to shoot that kid. Fear that it wouldn’t end there. Fear that they would keep coming back. And I’m not so sure that this wasn’t a true case of self-defense. Okay, his life was not in jeopardy at that moment. But he’d already been beaten with a bat. He’d already been intimidated and made to fear for his life. Shouldn’t that count for something?

What do you think? Where do we draw the lines for self-defense and why? Do the laws we have now make sense? Or are changes needed? And should this quiet man who minded his own business and kept to himself until pressed to take action go to prison for attempted homicide? Perhaps most importantly, what would you do in his shoes?

26 comments:

lisa curry said...

Thought-provoking blog entry, Annette. I don't blame the guy. I might have done the same thing in his shoes. I'm sure he felt he was protecting himself. I think a jury might be sympathetic as well -- a la Bernard Goetz.

Tory said...

Quite a compelling question, Annette!

I guess this is one of the reasons I don't own a gun: I'm too afraid I might do something like this. I can just imagine his level of anger and desperation that these kids would keep coming back.

I agree with Lisa, though. I bet the jury will be sympathetic.

Joyce said...

I have to agree, too. I would probably have done the same thing. This man had more reason to shoot than the store clerk who shot a robber a month or so ago. That was declared self-defense and the clerk wasn't even beaten or anything.

I think after being harassed and beaten with a bat, the guy was definitely in fear of his life.

Annette said...

This is definitely one jury I would never be selected for. But I hope that whoever does get that job IS sympathetic.

I forgot to mention, I do hope the kid pulls through. I'll be curious to see what kind of charges they press against him. Or will he try to sue his victim/shooter?

Lee Lofland said...

Don't start yelling at me because I'm going to say something you don't like, so here it comes...

I completely understand each of your comments, and I'll be the first to say the two bullies had it coming. But the reality of the situation is that the shooting was illegal.

To use deadly force against someone the threat must be immediate, and the shooter must feel that their life, or the life of another, is in immediate danger. People running (or walking) in the opposite direction are no longer a threat.

To make matters worse for the young man in this case is the fact that he had to physically go somewhere to get the gun. He should have gone to the police instead of going to get the gun.

The kid definitely needs to request a jury trial and hope for sympathy. Oh, I hope warrants for assault and armed robbery were issued for the two bullies. Does anyone know if that happened?

Annette said...

Lee, I just got the local paper. The boy who was shot is still in the hospital in critical condition. The police are continuing to look for the other boy and have some leads. Both boys face charges of aggravated assault and robbery.

Besides the baseball bat, the other kid was armed with a BB gun.

Meanwhile, my old high school friend is being held without bond.

And, Lee, I'm not going to yell at you. My husband and I have been debating this issue since it hit the news and I realize the law was broken. But I can also understand where this guy's head was and can understand how it happened.

If nothing else, it points out to me, as a writer, the benefit of a sympathetic "villain." I know he was wrong and that he SHOULD have called the police, but can empathize with his choice, wrong though it may have been.

Joyce said...

I know it was illegal, but I'm still rooting for him.

ramona said...

Annette, I'm not in Pittsburgh, so I knew nothing about this story, but this is all so disturbing. I have a feeling I'll be thinking about this all day.

I had a similar "open the newspaper" shock this summer. There'd been a string of swim club and vehicle break-ins in town, and two 19-year-olds were arrested. Imagine my shock when I open the paper and know one from my volunteer work at the high school. Sweet but troubled kid. In May, at a cancer awareness program, this boy was literally crying his eyes out, in my arms, because he'd lost someone. Now, I've got a newspaper with his mug shot. This kind of stuff keeps me up at night. I guess it should.

Joyce said...

Ramona, that's so sad!

Joyce said...

Here's a link to the latest article if anyone wants to read it:
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07246/814346-58.stm

ramona said...

It's a big public high school, Joyce. Lots of international kids. Give me an hour, and I could break your heart in a dozen ways. But, you work with the police. I'm sure you could do the same--easily.

Nancy said...

Okay, so---uh---shoot me, but I'm with Lee. If a kid is continually beaten up on the playground for his lunch money, he doesn't have the right to bring a gun to school in case it happens again, right?

Although why the shooter didn't better explain himself at the time--about how he feared for his life, I dunno.

See, this is one of the situations that gives me pause about gun owning. If you have a gun, you're pretty much deciding you could kill another human being under somesuch circumstances, right? And I just don't think I could do it. So we got rid of my husband's hunting rifles before we moved to the city. Too much danger of them being stolen and--one way or another--used against us.

Does owning a weapon give people the sense they have the power/right to commit crimes, do you think?

Nancy said...

ps. Great thought-provoking post, Annette!

Lee Lofland said...

I see that Nancy has opened the boiling cauldron of gun control. Normally, I try to steer clear of this topic, but today's blog is the perfect example of what happens when a gun is readily available to someone who is not a responsible gun owner.

Kristine said...

I'm also on the fence about this issue. Yes, the man was wrong (in a legal sense) to shoot the kid, but I understand why he did it. He was protecting himself and his property, even though the kids didn't pose an "immediate" threat to him, per say.

But this was a repeat offense. The kids were targeting him. Who's to say that this wouldn't have continued to escalate, resulting in a home invasion or murder? Is it better to prevent a problem now than wait and see what happens?

That's where I have the problem. When do you say "enough is enough" and what rights do property owners have over repeated crimes against them, regardless of how violent they are or are not?

Great post today, Annette. You've opened up a hot issue, but one I think is important to think about.

Annette said...

I'm just letting everyone have their say here, because I sure don't have any answers.

But I do feel for the guy. Most times I hear of a violent crime and I can't muster any pity for the criminal. In this case, I can see where he was coming from. My elderly mom lives two doors away. If a bunch of thug kids were hanging around the house making threats, I think I might just shift into mother bear mode, too. So often the legal system can't do anything until AFTER the fact, that there is a sense of helplessness that leads to fear that leads to exactly what happened in this case.

It will very interesting to follow this story as it unfolds.

lisa curry said...

I was just eating lunch here at work with a couple of coworkers, and one of them said, "Hey, did you hear about that guy who got robbed by two teenagers with baseball bats and shot one of them, and now he's been arrested for attempted murder?" Apparently a hot and timely topic, Annette! Lunch table consensus here was that no jury is going to find this guy guilty.

Lee Lofland said...

Does anyone know if the guy ever reported the thugs to the police?

I understand everyone's feelings, really I do, and I'm not saying that I wouldn't have eliminated the problem sooner than this guy did, but that doesn't change the law.

Kristine, did I hear you right? (Who's to say that this wouldn't have continued to escalate, resulting in a home invasion or murder? Is it better to prevent a problem now than wait and see what happens?)

Are you saying that we should kill people based on the fear that they MIGHT do something to us someday? Oh, I guess you're using our current White House administration as an example. My bad...

By the way, what ever happened to calling the police? You guys scare me. :)

Joyce said...

Lee, we're all writers. We have to do that "what if" stuff.

I do that with every news article I read. "What if this happened instead..."

None of us know the whole story, and probably never will. So we speculate.

Joyce said...

Besides, we all know people only call the police for things like their neighbors blowing leaves into their yards, or because their kid won't get up and go to school.

ramona said...

I, too, wondered if he'd reported the first incident. People are funny, though. This summer, a woman I know left her job at a bank after dark, and noticed a man, wearing a ski mask, two cars away from hers. I asked if she called the police. She said, no, because it's not against the law to wear a ski mask. (Can you believe she really said that?!) Two days later, exact same area, a couple was robbed at gunpoint, by a guy wearing a ski mask. The woman didn't call then, either--she was too embarrassed!

About what this guy did, someone once told me something like, civilian heroics usually get the civilian killed--or sent to jail. I don't mean that to apply to good samaritan acts, but it sounded like good sense to me.

Lee Lofland said...

Hey Joyce. I'll bet we could fill a book with the goofy calls to police stations.

I've heard everything from needing help opening a peanut butter jar to Martians attacking. Yes, I did go help the elderly lady open her peanut butter jar. No, I didn't see the Martians, though I must confess that I did look up. You never know.

Joyce said...

Lee, I bet that would be a funny book!

We had a call once from someone who thought martians were spying on him (or something like that). The guys told him to put aluminum foil over his windows to block the transmissions. I guess it worked. We haven't heard from him again.

ramona said...

Joyce and Lee, forget a book, you two should do a TV show: America's Funniest Cop Calls. Throw in enough speeders and drunks at the beach, and Court TV would snatch it up.

Gina said...

Rationally, I have to agree with Lee. There is no legal justification for shooting anyone who's trying to flee. And I agree with Nancy, too, which is why I don't have a gun -- the few karate weapons in the house are hard to find and take a lot of skill to really use.

From the gut, though, I probably would have lost my self-control and shot the kid, too. I've only been robbed once. A teenaged boy grabbed my purse -- I held on until he swung a hammer at my head, which shifted my attention to blocking that. [In fact, he was fairly cool and professional about the whole thing.] As soon as he had the purse, I went after him with a brick, screaming so loud that people came out of their homes with their dogs. Lucky for him, the kid ran fast. I called the police, then went to a friend's house. I wanted him to drive around with me in his truck and run the m-f over if we spotted him. My friend Ernie, bless his heart, agreed to go with me but kept delaying our departure while handing me beers until the adrenaline rush wore off enough that I came to me senses.

Kristine said...

Lee...I probably didn't explain myself clearly. I most definitely don't support shooting people on the basis of what they "could" do. Sorry if that's what I implied. But when you're repeatedly tormented, as in the case with this guy, I can understand why and how he did what he did in fear for what could have happened the next time.

People should have a right to fight for their personal safety and for their property. I'm not saying that it should be with a gun, though.

For me, it all comes down to whether or not this guy reported the incident to the cops from the beginning. If the cops were involved, then yes, he had no right to act. But if his reports were ignored by the cops, then well...sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands.

But of course this is all coming out of the mind of a suspense writer. LOL!