The Alexander Weiss Duty-to-Retreat Case
Part 2: Using Your Words Against You
When Alexander Weiss saw a silver Chevy Cavalier slide through an icy intersection and slam violently into a curb, he decided to stop to offer help. Within a matter of minutes, however, Weiss would end up shooting the driver, and the 26-year-old Rochester, Minnesota man would face second degree murder charges and endure two trials. In each trial, he would have to account for a bumper sticker he had placed on the back of the car. But before we get to that, here is how the shooting went down:
Weiss pulled over in front of the Cavalier, and before he could get out, the other driver revved the engine and lurched forward, forcefully striking Weiss’ car. When Weiss got out, he encountered Nah Dukart, a passenger from the other car. According to Weiss, Dukart had his shoulders hunched and his fists balled. He blamed Weiss for the accident, according to Weiss’ testimony, and he threatened to kill Weiss if he called police. Weiss went to his car to retrieve his cell phone and his pistol. Then he re-engaged with the aggressor.
Now, however, there were two of them. Seventeen-year-old Muhammed Rahim, the driver, had gotten out of the car and joined his friend in intimidating Weiss. They backed him up far enough that they blocked Weiss’ access to his car. Weiss displayed his pistol. According to his testimony, they didn’t believe the gun was real. Rahim spat at him and reached for the gun. When Weiss raised his firearm and chambered a round, Rahim said “do it then.” Weiss did; he fired one fatal round.
Minnesota is a duty-to-retreat state, and at trial, prosecutors would ask jurors to consider why Weiss went back to face his aggressors after he had retreated to his car to get his gun and cell phone. What was going through his mind? The legal defense team would argue that Weiss thought it was illegal to leave the scene of an automobile accident. The prosecutors, however, wanted jurors to believe that when Weiss grabbed his gun, he intended to kill Rahim, and to help make their case -- to help establish Weiss’s mind-set -- they pointed to a bumper sticker on his car.
It read: “Gun control means hitting your target.”
Don West, criminal defense attorney and National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe says, “We know from our experience that one of the first things the police do these days is start capturing social media -- Facebook, Instagram, and all that stuff. “ Don says he’s handled some cases where there were thousands of pages of social media evidence. “In this case, there is a guy with a bumper sticker that’s already announcing an attitude that’s not helpful. There may not be anything to it. He may think it’s funny or clever, but I can tell you as a defense lawyer, that’s just one more thing you have to deal with.”
We have written about another case where evidence suggesting the defender had a flippant attitude about self-defense caused problems for the legal defense. In the Gerald Strebendt case, there were so many negative inferences about guns, violence, and road rage in his history that defense lawyer Mike Arnold called the litany of evidence a “parade of horribles.” Nevermind that Strebendt was a veteran marine sniper and a professional mixed martial arts fighter with the nickname “The Finishing Machine.” Forget that he once testified in a murder trial that he had been offered money to kill the victim (he refused the offer). And ignore his ex-wife’s testimony that he frequently got into road rage incidents and would “brake check” other drivers. In the end, it was Strebendt’s own words on Facebook that helped seal his fate.
He wrote, “If you like to drive slow guess what? You should be in the slow lane. If you want to drive greater than the speed limit guess what? You should be in my lane. If you get confused somehow guess what? I will strike hard and fast like a cobra should the opportunity present itself.”
His Facebook post proved prophetic. A few weeks later, the opportunity “to strike hard and fast” presented itself. Strebendt passed a slow driver on a dark highway. He brake-checked the driver, who happened to be drunk, causing an accident. The other driver, angry, intoxicated, and confused, got out of the car and aggressively approached Strebendt. After his verbal commands to back away were repeatedly ignored, Strebendt shot the man in the middle of his forehead. When it was unclear whether attorney Mike Arnold would be able to convince the judge to keep the “parade of horribles” from being presented to a jury, Strebendt agreed to a plea deal and spent nearly five years in prison.
Weiss was luckier. He went to trial twice, and in both cases, a majority of the jurors refused to vote guilty, resulting in hung juries and prompting mistrials.
After the second mistrial, Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem reluctantly dropped charges, finding it “highly unlikely” that a third jury would reach a unanimous verdict. Nonetheless, he issued a statement that read, “I believe strongly that Mr. Weiss’ decision to shoot Muhammed Rahim was unjustified.”
Clearly, some jurors found no fault with Weiss’ bumper sticker; I’ll bet some agreed with the sentiment. But some clearly did not, and while Weiss won’t be prosecuted again, he wasn’t acquitted by a jury either. He by no means won his case. Although he won’t face any prison time, he already endured the expense, the heartache, and the disruption of two trials. It turned his life upside down.
Although one little bumper sticker may not have sealed Weiss’ fate -- not like the “parade of horribles” in the Strebendt case -- it certainly didn’t help. When the prosecutor was originally deciding whether to charge Weiss for this controversial shooting, that bumper sticker was just one more thing stacked against the defender.
As a concealed carrier, you have to ask yourself: if you’re ever involved in a self-defense shooting and a prosecutor is considering whether to charge you with murder, do you want any evidence out there that could be stacked against you, no matter how trivial it may seem? Of course not. If you are involved in a self-defense shooting, investigators will look at the bumper stickers on your car, they will interview people who know you, they will scour your social media and online presence. Anything they find that could provide insight regarding your attitude about guns, violence, and self-defense could be used against you.
It’s your right to show support for the Second Amendment. It’s your right to share opinions about guns and self-defense. That said, before you put a bumper sticker on our car, or hang a sign on your fence, or post a comment on Facebook, stop and ask yourself what a prosecutor would think of your sentiment if they were deciding whether to charge you in a self-defense homicide. How would you explain it to a jury? Does it make you sound like a responsible gun owner? Answer wisely, your future and freedom could hang in the balance.
SHAWN VINCENT- LITIGATION CONSULTANT
Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select juries in self-defense cases, and he manages public interest of high-profile legal matters. If you have any questions for Shawn, or would like more articles like this, let us know belo