The Brenna Cavanaugh Case Part 3: She Said, He Shot
The Brenna Cavanaugh Case
Part 3: She Said, He Shot
In the Brenna Cavanaugh case, there were six gunshots, two defenders, one conviction, and zero people physically harmed. To make things more interesting, the person who was convicted wasn’t the one who fired the shots — and she just so happened to be the former Police Commissioner for her little New Hampshire town. Here’s what happened:
Well past midnight in the early morning hours of August 18, 2018, 16-year-old Oscar LaLime thought he was going to a high school party at a friend’s house. While the party was raging at the friend’s father’s house, LaLime mistakenly went to the friend’s mother’s house — Brenna Cavanaugh’s house. Looking for his friends, the teenager found an unlocked door and entered the home. When he reached the third story, his presence awoke Cavanaugh and her boyfriend Mark Gray. “Get your gun,” Cavanaugh said. LaLime fled. Gray and Cavanaugh pursued.
LaLime made it to his truck before Gray and Cavanaugh caught up with him. Cavanaugh positioned herself in front of the truck — perhaps to read the license plate, or perhaps to block LaLime’s egress. Although Cavanaugh denies it, she allegedly told Gray to “shoot” or “shoot him.” Gray opened fire at the truck as the panicked teen backed into a telephone pole and then sped away. Three shots struck the vehicle. LaLime escaped, physically unscathed (although his family has filed a lawsuit claiming psychological trauma).
Prosecutors charged Gray with attempted first-degree assault and reckless conduct with a deadly weapon. They charged Cavanaugh as an accomplice to those crimes. In a strange twist, a jury convicted Cavanaugh in August 2019 while five months later, a different jury acquitted Gray.
Earlier in this series, we discussed how the entire incident could have been avoided had Cavanaugh simply locked her doors. Moreover, CCW Safe National Trial Counsel Don West explained how Gray and Cavanaugh surrendered the protections of the Castle Doctrine once they pursued the intruder off the property, which made the encounter at the pickup truck an entirely separate self-defense scenario. “Gray had no legal right to use deadly force against LaLime based upon what happened in the house,” Don says. “That’s completely over, and he was no longer an intruder. He no longer posed an immediate threat by virtue of being in the house.” Don also explains that Gray would not have been justified in using deadly force for the purposes of preventing LaLime from getting away.
The only legal justification for the shots Gray fired would have been for the protection of either himself or Cavanaugh, assuming the teen posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm. The best legal argument to be made for the defenders in this case is that they feared LaLime intended to runover Cavanaugh with his vehicle — but there were some obstacles to that defense.
If you leave a position of safety and voluntarily put yourself at risk, it is difficult to make a valid self-defense claim. Most states with a “stand-your-ground” statue reimpose a defender’s duty to retreat if the defender is found to be the initial aggressor. Even thorough LaLime started the sequence of events by entering Cavanaugh’s house, by pursuing LaLime off their property, Gray and Cavanaugh triggered a second incident in which they became the “aggressors,” and by that logic, they would have had some duty to retreat — perhaps by stepping out of the way of the pickup truck — before resorting to deadly force.
Even without a duty to retreat, for deadly force to be justified, the defenders would have to believe that they faced an imminent threat of great bodily harm or death. While LaLime, behind the wheel of a pickup truck, had the ability to cause imminent harm, in retrospect it seems he had no intent to do so. Cavanaugh and Gray didn’t know the circumstances at that moment, and the legal standard judges them only by what they reasonably believed at the time — but defenders tend to lose sympathy with jurors when they have plainly misjudged the nature of the threat. Notwithstanding, jurors are also asked to consider the defender’s true intent. Did Cavanaugh and Gray truly believe there was an imminent threat? Or were the shots fired in an attempt to stop LaLime from getting away? The answer to that question determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
In this case, different juries sat in judgment of each defendant, and they came to different verdicts, convicting Cavanaugh and acquitting Gray. We can’t know how the jurors came to their decisions, but it’s quite possible jurors held Cavanaugh to account because she placed herself in the way of the pickup truck, and because she exercised poor judgment — especially considering her law enforcement background. Conversely, it is possible jurors forgave Gray because he was protecting another while deferring to the judgment of a former Police Commissioner who allegedly said: “shoot him.” If both defendants had been tried by the same jury, would the result have been different? We can’t know.
Confused? That’s fair. This is a confusing case. There were two independent self-defense scenarios, two defenders with vastly different life experiences, two legal defenses, and two juries that witnessed two separate trials. The lesson for armed defenders is that when your fire your weapon in self-defense, you submit your entire life to the criminal justice system — and perhaps to the judgment of six to 12 strangers from your community. When the details of a case are confusing, reasonable jurors can come to wildly different conclusions, and it can feel like a coin toss: heads you’re acquitted; tails you’re convicted. Lock your doors at night. Don’t needlessly chase down potential threats. If you go out of your way to avoid violent confrontations, should you ever be forced to use deadly force, it’s likely your circumstances will be unambiguous, and you’ll be able to clearly articulate why your actions were reasonable, and should you face a jury, our odds of acquittal will be better than a coin toss.
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