“In Self Defense” The Gyrell Lee Case: Testing The Limits of Stand Your Ground- The Verdict And Appeal
The Gyrell Lee Case
Testing the Limits of “Stand-Your-Ground”
Part 6: The Verdict and Appeal
In this installment of “The Four Elements of Self-Defense,” we look at the verdict and appeal in the Gyrell Lee case and we’ll discuss the lessons for concealed carriers. Like most of the shooters we analyze, Gyrell Lee was NOT a CCW Safe member. We’ve chosen his case because it provides clear lessons for concealed carriers regarding what can go wrong in a self-defense shooting.
Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, 2013, Gyrell Lee was involved in a deadly gunfight on the street near his cousin Jamieal Walker’s house. Walker and Lee had been celebrating New Year’s Eve outside Walker’s home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Quinton Epps, a man with a reputation for starting trouble, had come by multiple times throughout the evening to argue with Walker. Each time he was more intoxicated and more verbally abusive than the last. After a particularly heated exchange, Lee, a licensed concealed carrier, retrieved his .45 caliber pistol from his car. “Just in case,” he said.
The next time Epps came by, he parked a few houses down the street. Walker and Lee walked over to talk to him. Predictably, an argument erupted. Walker punched Epps in the face. Epps responded by drawing his weapon and shooting Walker at point-blank range, and he continued to fire as Walker ran away. Lee had seen Epps’ gun, and he drew his pistol to defend his cousin. He didn’t shoot because, in the tussle, he couldn’t “get a clean shot.”
Then Epps turned his gun on Lee, but Lee fired first, shooting Epps eight times. Lee fled the scene and hid his gun under a trash can. Epps and Walker both died from their wounds. About 12 hours later, the police picked Lee up as part of their investigation into a double homicide. A grand jury indicted Lee on a first-degree murder.
Based on local press reports of the trial, jurors had a difficult time reaching a verdict. They began deliberations at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon, and around 9:00 that evening they informed the judge they were deadlocked. The judge sent them back, indicating that he expected a verdict that day, and 2 1/2 hours later, the jury of six men and six women emerged with a verdict: guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder. Two of the female jurors wept as the judge announced the 16 to 20-year prison sentence.
It seems obvious that members of the jury had strong feelings on both sides, with some feeling it was clear-cut self-defense (his cousin was just shot and he was next) and others questioning why he would have run and hid his weapon (consciousness of guilt evidence).
Lee appealed the verdict, and although he lost at the state court of appeals, the North Carolina Supreme Court decided to consider the case. Lee’s argument to the State’s highest court was that the judge failed to properly instruct the jury regarding the “stand-your-ground” law. Combined with the prosecutor’s assertion that a reasonable person in the defendant’s shoes would have “removed himself from the situation” and “run away,” Lee’s lawyers argued that the judge’s omission was reversible error.
The Cato Institute, a non-partisan policy research foundation, weighed in on the case, issuing a friend of the court brief supporting Lee’s position. The foundation, which is “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government,” felt that Lee’s conviction violated the plain-language of the “stand-your-ground” law in North Carolina, and that it represented a threat to individual’s right to self-defense across the country.
The North Carolina Supreme Court seemed to agree, at least on the grounds that the jury instruction was in error. Their decision reads: “The record reflects a reasonable possibility that, had the trial court given the required stand-your-ground instruction, a different result would have been reached at trial.” They reversed Lee’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
While Lee won the right to a new trial, his fate is far from certain. He made a number of critical mistakes that could still cause jurors to question his motives.
Perhaps Lee’s biggest mistake was fleeing the scene and hiding his gun. This is what CCW Safe contributor Andrew Branca describes as “consciousness of guilt evidence.” Even if Lee was truly in fear of imminent harm from Epps, Lee didn’t behave like someone who felt they were justified in the minutes and hours following the shooting. As CCW Safe National Trial Counsel Don West says, “If you are claiming self-defense. . . you had better act like it.”
More subjectively, it could be argued that Lee made an even bigger mistake when he chose to get his gun “just in case.” That statement made by Lee, and captured in a jailhouse recording, reveals that Lee knew there could be trouble with Epps that might require deadly force. Lee had other options. He could have gone inside. He could have gone home. He could have called the police. Instead, Lee chose to arm himself and stick around to see what would happen.
Of course, Lee had a right to celebrate New Year’s peacefully in his cousin’s yard. The question for the concealed carrier is whether or not a temporary violation of that right was worth the deadly armed conflict that followed.
In most of the self-defense cases we have explored in “The Four Elements of Self-Defense,” the shooters made two key decisions: the decision to pull the trigger, and then sometime before that, a decision that invited the inevitable conflict that ended with the use of deadly force. When Lee decided to get his weapon rather than go inside or go home, he opened the door to the conflict that followed, and as a result, he lost his cousin and he lost his freedom.
Concealed carriers should look to the Gyrell Lee case to understand how precarious the legal claim of self-defense can be. The jury in this case was deadlocked, and when prodded by the judge, they came to a difficult compromise decision. The North Carolina Supreme Court issued an opinion stating that a single jury instruction could have pushed the verdict in a different direction. That’s how close this case was. As a concealed carrier you have to think hard about how willing you are to put yourself in that kind of legal peril.
Lee may yet be found justified and win his freedom. But even if he does, he’ll have spent at least six-years behind bars. Nothing can bring back his cousin, and he’ll have to live with the knowledge that a man lost his life, and he took it.
The Lee case has proven to be a real test of the “stand-your-ground” laws that say an individual in a public place, who is committing no crime, does not have a legal obligation to retreat from danger but can face an imminent threat of great bodily harm or death with deadly force. The case shows us how defending a self-defense claim can be a risky high-wire act. Lee’s difficult legal journey proves that just because a law says you CAN “stand-your-ground” doesn’t mean that you SHOULD. The law is certainly not a guarantee of an acquittal
As Don West says, “No matter how justified you might be in using lethal force, if there is an opportunity to avoid it, take it.”
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