We can learn from other people’s experiences. Hopefully if we take such lessons to heart, we won’t be as unfortunate as to repeat their mistakes.
So whenever you come across an account of any situation where deadly force was used, don’t merely skim through it, but read it carefully and ask yourself “What is the ‘takeaway’ item I can learn from this”.
Sometimes the takeaway item – the bullet point or elevator summary – of what occurred is subtle and hard to find. And then, sometimes, it hits you between the eyes, and there’s not just one or two but plenty of learning experiences to embrace.
Here’s a useful example from Colorado. This story tells how the daughter of a shot (and killed) burglar was awarded $300,000 in a civil suit against the business owner who shot him. An earlier story provides more background into the incident.
Civil lawsuits are sometimes the second part of the many downsides you should be aware of which follow from the use of deadly force. And whereas a criminal prosecution requires proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ for the prosecution to succeed, a civil suit only needs ‘a preponderance of evidence’ to prevail. In other words, think of a 99% or higher requirement for criminal convictions, but merely a 51% requirement for a civil suit to succeed.
And just because either the police decline to prosecute, or even if they do and you’re found not guilty, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from a civil lawsuit – think back to the OJ Simpson case where he was found not guilty in the criminal court but guilty in a civil trial that followed.
In the Colorado example above, and to my amazement when looking at the apparent facts as reported in the two articles, it seems the local district attorney declined to prosecute, and a Grand Jury also declined to return an indictment. I’ll guess their thinking was along the lines of ‘It wasn’t really a 100% justifiable shooting, but the guy who was shot was definitely a low-life bad guy, and on balance we don’t think we should send the shooter to prison for killing a low-life, and we can understand how he felt, even if it was probably not the best decision he made’.
But in the civil trial, the jury there probably thought in different terms, perhaps more like ‘Okay, so the dead man was a criminal, but he didn’t really deserve to be shot and killed while hiding in a shed, and for sure, his 3 year old daughter now needs some help’, and because it was a civil trial, the jury could find for the dead man’s daughter and the ‘worst’ that happened to the shooters was that they had to pay damages to the daughter, with the jury probably reasoning ‘They can better afford to give some money to the girl, who needs it more than they do; it is the least they can do after killing her father unnecessarily’.
You can’t always rely on prosecutors and grand juries being so lenient, but you can pretty much always anticipate reasoning such as guessed at above in a civil case, any time that the shooting circumstances are less than very clearly 100% justifiable and unavoidable.
Now for the takeaway items in this case. Here are four obvious ones. First, Colorado doesn’t have a ‘castle doctrine’ type law that applies to people protecting their businesses, only to people protecting their homes. The shooter and his two associates/relatives did not have the force of the law backing up their actions. Second, the facts of the encounter were such to make it very difficult for the shooters to claim they were in imminent and certain fear of their lives, and were shooting in self defense. Third, they had told various people they would shoot trespassers in the future. Fourth, the shooter hid the gun he had used to shoot the burglar.
The moral of the story, quite apart from the obvious one of only using deadly force when you’re in deadly danger yourself, is not to go around boasting about your intention to kill burglars in the future, whether they pose deadly threats to you or not. Clearly, those stories will come back to haunt you if you subsequently use deadly force, no matter whether it was or was not justified at the time – in this case, even an employee of the shooter voluntarily approached the police to report the shooter’s earlier claims about shooting trespassers. This person probably risked his future employment with the shooter by doing this, but did so anyway. Your own friends and associates might do the same.
The other moral is not to lie to the police and act in a guilty manner. Hiding the gun that was used to fire the fatal shot was not the act of an innocent person. It shows the shooter to have been feeling guilty about his actions, and if you’re feeling guilty about your actions, it is difficult to simultaneously take the moral high ground, as you must, and say ‘I’m very sorry, I didn’t want to shoot him or anyone else, but I had no choice but to do so because I was in fear of my life’. How can you simultaneously be saying you reluctantly but properly had to use deadly force to protect yourself, but at the same time, you are hiding the gun you used in self defense?
If you have more time, you might want to read through the pages and pages of police reports on the incident (linked from the original article). If you do, you’ll get more of a feeling for police procedures, and you’ll also realize one more important thing. Everything you say or do, and how you act and behave, is going into the police reports, and will subsequently be read by prosecutors, grand juries, and possibly regular juries too, and when these other people are reading these reports, they will be reading them out of context.
You want the reports to say that you were cooperative and helpful. They can certainly say that you seemed distressed and upset – because you will be, indeed it is probably better to be recorded as being distressed/upset rather than jubilant, relaxed and happy! But you don’t want them to say you were uncooperative, cagey, changing your story, argumentative, belligerent, and so on.
That is not to say you need to ‘cooperate’ with the police beyond a point of prudence, and it is also not to say you need to volunteer additional testimony at the scene beyond the obvious essentials, particularly if it might be rushed out before you’ve had a chance to calm down and understand, yourself, as best you can what happened. Remember – when the police attend a shooting, they are looking to charge someone with a serious felony offense – you need to make sure that they don’t mistakenly fixate on you as the person to be charging.