News: “NC Pastor Found Civilly Liable for Shooting Son-in-Law”

Today’s post involves a wrongful death civil verdict yesterday against a North Carolina pastor over the shooting death of his son-in-law, as reported by WRAL. The case has received considerable attention, including a multi-article newspaper special, driven at least in part by the fact that the pastor is white and the son-in-law (victim) was black. It is also notable that the relevant prosecutorial and law enforcement authorities have declined to pursue the case criminally.

The basic facts of the case are that the son-in-law and the pastor’s daughter were experiencing a violently catastrophic collapse of their marriage, within which they had children. The son-in-law had both positive traits—military service—as well as negative traits—apparent drug and violence issues. 

The pastor would claim that the son-in-law arrived at his home, where the daughter (the victim’s wife) was also present, in a rage over warrants the wife had sworn out against him the day before for breaking and entering, property damage, and domestic criminal trespass. He further claimed that the son-in-law was forcibly entering the home and had placed the pastor and daughter in fear of serious bodily harm, based on the victim’s threats to kill them both, when the pastor shot the victim. 

The victim’s survivors claim that the son-in-law was at the house merely to pick up his child, with only peaceful intentions.  This is, obviously, inconsistent with the physical evidence of the victim’s forcible entry into the home, including broken glass in the front door.

North Carolina, like many states, has a defense of highly-defensible property statute that creates a legal presumption that someone facing a forcible and unlawful intruder into a home has a reasonable fear of deadly force harm at the hands of that intruder.  The victim’s conduct in this case triggered that legal presumption.

Such legal presumptions are, however, rebuttable, meaning that prosecutors in the criminal context, or plaintiff’s attorneys in the civil context as here, have the opportunity to overcome that presumption with a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. 

That appears to be what the plaintiffs accomplished in this case. The verdict was unanimous, which is generally not required in civil cases (in most civil cases a super-majority of the jury is sufficient to arrive at a verdict). I expect that the jury verdict was primarily driven by two factors. 

First, four of the six shots that struck the victim did so in the back, some of them in a manner consistent with the victim laying on the ground when the rounds hit. This obviously provides fodder for the plaintiffs to argue that those particular shots were likely not fired in necessary self-defense, and provide an opportunity to overcome the legal presumption just described.

Second, the pastor himself testified the he couldn’t remember what happened after the moment the glass broke in the front door, citing post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result even the pastor wasn’t able to present an explicit narrative of reasonable self-defense to the jury. 

Ultimately the civil jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, meaning that the plaintiffs had successfully disproved self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence, and awarded the plaintiffs $250,000 in damages.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the legal standard for finding liability in a civil case is substantially lower than that required for liability in a criminal case. In a criminal case the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case the plaintiff must merely prove liability by a preponderance (a majority) of the evidence, a substantially lower standard. It is thus not uncommon for a person to be held not liable criminally, but liable civilly (as infamously happened with OJ Simpson). 

(Thanks to Mark Cline of Hitting the Mark Firearms Training, for being the first to bring this verdict to my attention.)

--Andrew

Attorney Andrew F. Branca  
Law of Self Defense LLC

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