News: “Problem: Plate Carrier or Firing on Fleeing Suspects?”

Today’s post involves an acquittal this week of a Florida man on charges of first degree murder for the killing of his stepfather, as reported here.  Interestingly, the defendant attributes his prosecution to the fact that he was wearing a plate carrier when he engaged his stepfather breaking into his home.  At the same time, surveillance video shows the defendant firing repeatedly at the stepfather after he has fled the home.  Which was more likely to have convinced the prosecution to bring this case to trial? 

Facts of the Case

The defendant, James Greenwood, lived with his mother in their Pensacola FL home.  The mother was in the process of separating from the victim, Al Jones, who no longer resided at the home.  Surveillance video shows Jones break open a door into the home and enter—clearly a forcible and unlawful entry into the defendant’s home.  

Jones makes it only a few feet into the home, however, before he apparently encounters a plate-wearing and shotgun wielding Greenwood.  The video shows Jones rushing back out the door he had broken to gain entry, with Greenwood pursuing him out of the home.

So far, so good. 

The Problem

The problem for Greenwood arises when he then leans out the door and fires at least six shotgun blasts at the fleeing Jones.  The justification for engaging a forcible and unlawful intruder into one’s home goes out the window—or out the door—once that intruder is in full flight and has exited the home.  Had Greenwood shot at Jones inside the home, we would have had a very different case than we have when Greenwood shoots at Jones as Jones is fleeing outside.

Media, As Usual, Mangles Issues

Naturally the news report on this case garbles use-of-force law, stating:  “Throughout the case Greenwood claimed self-defense under Florida’s stand your ground law.” 

First of all, one does not “claim self-defense under stand-your-ground law,” one merely claims self-defense under self-defense law.  In any case, stand-your-ground properly understood as relieving one of an otherwise existing duty to retreat would not apply to a forcible and unlawful intruder into one’s home, as there is no legal duty to retreat under such circumstances even absent stand-your-ground. 

Stand-your-ground as improperly used as a label for self-defense immunity, an utterly distinct legal doctrine, may have played a role in this case, but we can’t tell because the “journalist” doesn’t know enough to write coherently on the subject.  As usual.

Defense Counsel: Plate Carrier Was the Problem

Interestingly, the defendant’s attorney attributes the fact that this case when to trial in part on the fact that the defendant was wearing a plate carrier when he engaged the victim:

“Instead of trying to learn the whole story and what really happened behind the scenes, all everybody did was look at a scary video, look at a scary gun and look at a scary plate carrier and made a decision about the case without really talking to the witnesses and getting into the backstory.”

Naturally this defense counsel is obliged to advocate zealously for his client, but given the context of the shots fired at the fleeing victim this explanation is nonsense.  When the prosecution has video of your client firing at fleeing suspects who are no longer any apparent imminent threat, that’s your problem, not the plate carrier.

Can 'X' Be Used Against Me in Court? Yes! 

At the same time, addressing the plate carrier is important, because it is subject to rhetorical abuse by the prosecution.  Is wearing a plate carrier while defending your home against an unlawful and forcible intruder unlawful, is it a crime? Of course not. 

But can it nevertheless “be used against you in court”?  Of course—because most anything can “be used against you in court.”  And the more unusual the conduct, the easier it is for the prosecution to use it against you in court.

In order for the use of unusual conduct to be effective, however, it cannot stand alone, there must be some underlying substantive hook, some conduct that is arguably unlawful, that is arguably a crime—then the unusual conduct can be used as a kind of rhetorical amplifier to make the defendant’s overall conduct appear even more egregious.

Had this defendant been hunkered down in his bedroom, and the intruders come to his position, and he shot them with a shotgun while wearing a plate carrier, the wearing of the plate carrier would have been nowhere enough to alone justify a prosecution. 

When the defendant engages in arguably unlawful conduct, however, such as firing at the intruders after they are in flight, the wearing of the plate carrier can be used rhetorically to make the defendant appear unusual, odd, over-the-top—in short, to make the defendant appear unreasonable. 

In clear cases of self-defense, such attempting to use unusual conduct standing alone to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt is unlikely to be successful for a prosecutor.

In marginal cases of self-defense, however, such unusual conduct might be sufficient to push that marginal case over the edge for the prosecution.

Darned Lucky to Be Acquitted

In closing, it should go without saying that this defendant is darned lucky to have been acquitted. This is another excellent example of the dangers of learning self-defense law from anecdotes. If the lesson taken home from this case is that it’s apparently legal to pursue fleeing intruders with multiple gunshot blasts to encourage them on their way, that’s a bad lesson. Bring these facts to trial 100 times and the prosecution will obtain a conviction in more than 90 of those cases. If the plan is to get lucky and hope the bad odds come out in your favor despite the facts and law, as appears to have happened with this defendant, that’s not much of a plan.

--Andrew

Attorney Andrew F. Branca  
Law of Self Defense LLC  

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