Defense of Last Resort Part 4: What the Camera Saw
Defense of Last Resort
Part 4: What the Camera Saw
The final minutes of Gerado Espinoza’s life were caught on camera. A 911 recording captured the desperate moments before and after Charles Dorsey shot and killed the 46-year-old father of two. Portions of both recordings can be seen and heard in a WJZ news report. Here’s what the recordings reveal:
Mr. Dorsey’s Ring doorbell camera shows a shirtless Espinoza on his front steps. For 13 minutes, he repeatedly knocked, rang the doorbell, and twisted the door handle trying to get in.
“At first, it’s calm and it’s jovial on the part of Mr. Espinoza,” said Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson, “but it rapidly escalates. It is my belief that Mr. Espinoza thought his friends were pranking him.” We learn that Espinoza was an out-of-town guest of the Dorsey’s new next door neighbors, and he had been drinking by the pool all day. Just after 1 a.m., Espinoza had mistaken the Doresy’s house for the neighbors’, but Mr. Dorsey had no way to know that.
On the recording, we see Espinoza has exhausted his patience and he loses his temper. Angry over what he thinks is a prank that has gone too far, he aggressively twists the door handle up and down — forcefully enough to shake the door frame. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” he shouts. “You want a piece of this s—!” In an earlier exchange, he had been screaming obscenities and issuing threats of violence. In the frenzy, the lock fails, and Espinoza leans forward as the door swings open.
The video ends (the state declined to publicly release the moment of death), but the 911 recording picks up and captures the sharp report of Mr. Dorsey’s single pistol shot. “I told you to get away,” Mr. Dorsey says. Mrs. Dorsey, who is on the phone with 911, starts screaming — a full-throated, unmitigated scream of absolute horror. “He pushed the door open!” her husband explains. “Why did you do that?” she screams. “He pushed the door open!”
After five weeks of investigation, State’s Attorney Gibson held a press conference to explain why he wouldn’t be filing charges against Mr. Dorsey. “The Ring video was extremely helpful,” Gibson said, “because it gave us insights into the behaviors of Mr. Espinoza and the interaction between Mr. Espinoza and Mr. Dorsey. And when you compare it with the 911 call that was received by Mrs. Dorsey inside the home, you can kind of simultaneously, through two different mediums, see the events occuring.”
While Gibson admitted the recordings weren’t necessary to come to his conclusion in this obvious case of self-defense, it sure made his decision easier to explain to Espinoza’s family and to the public who had been following the high-profile case.
We’ve seen other cases where video has helped prosecutors exonerate defenders.
Indiana firefighter Dean Keller installed a security camera in his yard that monitored a gap in the fence between his property and that of his neighbor, Jeffrey Weigle. The two had a cantankerous relationship; the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office documented twelve clashes over the previous 8-year period, including a fight that left Keller with a stab wound and Weigle with bite marks.
On June 27, 2017, Keller’s security camera captured a fresh argument between the neighbors. It shows the men exchange insults over the fence. After Weigle insults Keller’s wife, he mounts a riding lawn mower and drives off frame, but moments later he returns, and the camera catches a glimpse of Weigle brandishing a revolver. Keller draws his concealed pistol and practically empties the magazine (I count 16 shots), striking his neighbor multiple times. Weigle returns fire, bullets whipping through the grass, missing their mark. Miraculously, Weigle stands up, cusses at Keller, and walks to his house. He survives a sucking chest wound, and later pleads guilty to criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon.
A week after the shootout, Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper announced Keller would face no charges. “Given the aggression shown by Weigle, it was reasonable for Keller to believe deadly force was necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to himself (and) his wife.”
Arguably, without the video, there might have been a different legal result: it would have been the Keller’s word against Weigle’s regarding who started the fight and who shot first. Given their history, neither party was particularly credible. Moreover, Keller is lucky that the video showed his neighbor brandishing his gun. Keller’s body obstructs most of the view, and you can only see the firearm for a few frames. If you blink you miss it — and if Keller had been standing a step or two to his left, the camera would have missed it too, and it would have appeared to investigators that Keller fired first, unprovoked.
That brings up a real problem with video evidence: it doesn’t necessarily show the incident from the defender’s point of view. Don West, National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe and veteran criminal defense attorney, says that video can be a double-edged sword in a self-defense case. “The only things the video can show us is what it captures,” he says, “and sometimes what it captures is incomplete or of poor quality, and it doesn’t always show the whole story.”
The problem of incomplete video complicated the Stephen Maddox case. Maddox is a CCW Safe member who has been outspoken about his case, encouraging us to share his story. On the night of October 17, 2015, Maddox was physically attacked three times by a much larger man: six-foot-three, 290-pound Kelly Wilkerson. Security cameras captured parts of the first and third confrontations, but there was no evidence of the second attack that Maddox claimed. Citing the time code on the two surveillance videos, prosecutors argued there wasn’t possibly enough time for a fight in between, and they used the evidence to try and cast Maddox as a liar. Don West consulted on the case, and he helped frame an argument that the cameras were not synchronized and that there could have been up to two extra minutes between the initial and final confrontations. It was up to the jury to decide who to believe. Luckily, they sided with Maddox and acquitted him after a short deliberation, but in contrast to the Dorsey’s case, the video in the Maddox case actually complicated his legal defense.
Video evidence complicated the legal defense of Michael Drejka as well. While Drejka criticized Brittany Jacobs for parking in a handicapped parking space, Jacobs’ partner, Markis McGlockton, came to her defense by violently shoving Drejka to the ground. With McGlockton hovering over him, Drejka said he feared further violence and pulled his pistol, firing a single fatal shot. Drejka told investigators that his attacker was stepping towards him when he pulled the trigger, but as police pointed out, the surveillance video showed McGlockton slowly stepping backwards. I’m confident that Drejka, after being violently pushed to the ground, wasn’t focused on his attacker’s feet, but that’s exactly what the jury focused on. One juror told the Tampa Bay Times that during deliberations, they watched the video “at least two or three hundred times” before they settled on a guilty verdict.
Digital recorders are practically ubiquitous these days. If you are ever involved in a self-defense shooting, there’s a strong possibility that a part or all of it will be captured on audio or video — or both. It’s unlikely, however, that the recording will show the complete story from your point of view. Here’s why this is important to concealed carriers and gun owners concerned with home defense: any statements you make in the wake of a shooting will be scrutinized by investigators and cross-referenced with the evidence — especially video and audio evidence. That is why we stress that you should never make detailed statements to law enforcement without consulting a lawyer. Any discrepancy between your testimony and the evidence, even an honest mistake or misperception, could damage your self-defense claim and doom your legal defense.
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