Part 4: Reasonable Fear
Most of the cases we explore in The Four Elements of Self-Defense are stories we have followed in the news. Stephen Maddox, however, is a CCW Safe member, and he asked us to tell his story so that others could learn from his case. In this article, we will explore how the concept of reasonable fear affected Maddox’s legal defense.
At six-foot-two and 290 pounds, Kelly Wilkerson outclassed Stephen Maddox in a fist fight. On three occasions during the October 17, 2015 Queens of Chrome motorcycle rally, Wilkerson attacked Maddox and fought him to the ground. On two occasions, Maddox escaped his attacker with the help of bystanders who pulled Wilkerson away. Maddox escaped the third attack with four shots from his .44 revolver.
The most critical factor in a self-defense case is whether the shooter had reasonable fear of imminent death or bodily harm. One of the biggest challenges in the Maddox case was that Wilkerson, despite all his belligerence, was unarmed. At trial, the defense would have to show that one doesn’t have to be armed to cause great bodily injury or death. They had to demonstrate that Maddox didn’t know Wilkerson was unarmed, and in fact, he had a reasonable expectation that Wilkerson could have had knives or guns on his person.
“There are lots of ways that someone who is armed can feel threatened legitimately by someone else to the degree that they believe violence is imminent.,” says Don West, National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe. “In Maddox’s case, Wilkerson’s size and clear intent to do harm were crucial factors.”
Maddox admitted to police that, in the first encounter, Wilkerson had gotten the best of him. Maddox was outclassed by Wilkerson in a fist fight, something he learned twice in the matter of just a few minutes. When Maddox saw Wilkerson pull up on his motorcycle before the final encounter, he thought it “wasn’t going to go better than the first two incidents.” Don West says, ”It was clear Maddox couldn’t take Wilkerson without a weapon. Stephen would be done for.”
After the first two encounters, Maddox claimed his clothes were soaked with sweat. “My mind was racing,” he testified. “I was exhausted. My body and mind was somewhere it had never been before.” To speak further to his state of mind, before the third encounter, Maddox called 911 for help. At trial, his lawyers pointed out that murderers don’t call 911 before they kill.
Although Wilkerson was technically unarmed, police found several knives stashed in Wilkerson’s motorcycle, and Maddox claimed he thought he saw Wilkerson’s wife hand him a gun earlier in the evening. Although there was no proof of that, Wilkerson was known to carry. “I knew he had knives,” Maddox said at trial. “I knew he had guns. I didn’t know if he was going to stab me or shoot me.”
Just as Maddox had time to retrieve his firearm before the final confrontation, so did Wilkerson.
Defense experts presented evidence at trial that showed three of the five shots fired were at point blank range, with the muzzle making contact with Wilkerson, bolstering Maddox’s claim that Wilkerson was right on top of him when he fired. Regarding the other two shots, Maddox said he fired them as Wilkerson charged toward him, and after taking the hits, Wilkerson kept coming. An expert at trial testified that none of the five shots, individually, were specifically lethal or incapacitating.
In our exploration of self-defense cases, we frequently speak about the concept of “every shot counts.” When there are multiple shots, the first may be justified, and if the assailant has been incapacitated or retreats, that next shot may not. According to Don West, that is particularly true in North Carolina where the law states that using excessive force in self-defence can lead to a voluntary manslaughter conviction. A jury could judge him on each of those five shots he fired.
But in the Maddox case, the first shots did not eliminate the threat. Because the first two shots failed to stop Wilkerson from pressing his attack, Don West says Maddox’s subsequent shots may have been even more justified, and Maddox’s fear of imminent harm was even more reasonable.
The lesson for the concealed carrier is that the use of deadly force can only be used when a the threat of great harm is imminent. Because Wilkerson had attacked Maddox twice before, because Wilkerson physically outclassed him, and because Wilkerson was known to carry weapons, Maddox was able to make a strong case that his fear was imminent and reasonable. It’s an unusually clear-cut case for a self-defense shooting where the decedent was unarmed.
In the next installment of The Four Elements of Self-Defense, we’ll explore how Maddox’s post-incident actions affected his legal defense.