The Legal Defense of John DeRossett: Part 1
These articles are not presented as any judgement or statement of opinion from CCW Safe. The content represents the thoughts and opinions of the authors. It is presented here to generate thought and discussion.
Retired General Motors mechanic John DeRossett moved to Brevard County, Florida to live out his golden years. At the request of his family, he reluctantly agreed to take in his wayward niece, Mary, who had long battled opioid addiction. While living under John’s roof, Mary resorted to prostitution to pay for her pills. On August 20, 2015, John returned home from an evening church service, prepared dinner, and sat down in his room in the back of the house to watch television. He didn’t know that Mary had been in contact with a potential client who was on his way to the house.
There was no knock, Mary’s prospect texted from his car, and Mary, whose room was near the front of the house, quietly opened the front door and met the stranger who was dressed in blue jeans and a black graphic T-shirt. When she invited him into the house, he reached across the threshold, grabbed her, and dragged her into the front yard. Mary screamed for her uncle to help. John, a concealed carrier, grabbed his .40 caliber Glock and marched to the front door where he saw the silhouettes of three figures struggling in his dark, unlit front yard. John fired a single round into the night sky in an effort to ward off the intruders who were seizing his niece.
The effort failed. Immediately upon firing the warning shot, multiple muzzle flashes punctured the darkness, and John found himself the target of a barrage of bullets. John fired back at the shadowy figures before he was struck twice and managed to crawl into his house with the help of Mary, who had freed herself once the firing began. Mary placed a desperate 9-1-1 call, begging for medical help and reporting an attempted kidnapping.
It had not been a kidnapping attempt. It was a botched prostitution raid – a warrantless arrest by a rookie undercover deputy for second-degree misdemeanor solicitation. He failed to identify himself as law enforcement. All the men John encountered in his front lawn were ununiformed sheriff’s deputies, and John would soon find out that he shot one of them below his tactical vest, severing a critical artery, and putting him in a fight for his life. Miraculously, the deputy survived – as did John – but before he was released from the hospital, John was charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer. If convicted, he would spend the rest of his life in jail.
Firearms instructor Steve Moses was once part of a Special Response Team that served high-risk Writs of Possession to dangerous persons and also participated in multiple misdemeanor arrests with another deputy while working in plainclothes. Steve says that law enforcement will often operate without uniforms, but in such cases, they are trained to clearly identify themselves and to recognize the possibility that other parties may mistake their identity or intentions. During the legal defense in the DeRossett case, testimony from detectives revealed that, in the history of the entire department, deputies had never attempted a prostitution arrest by going to a home without a warrant. They broke policy on the night of August 20, 2015 because they were frustrated that Mary had refused to come to the motel where they originally staged their prostitution sting operation. The team simply wasn’t trained for the circumstances that unfolded, and it resulted in tragedy.
The morning after the botched arrest, the elected sheriff held a press conference branding John as both a pimp and a wannabe cop-killer. Meanwhile, the public defender’s office declared a conflict, refusing to get involved in such a volatile, high-profile case. Assistant Public Defender Michael Panella passionately represented Mary for her misdemeanor charge, and the family approached Michael about defending John. Understanding the incident from Mary’s perspective, Mike was convinced of John’s innocence and felt the charges were politically motivated. It was self-defense and defense of another. Michael left the PD’s office, started a private practice, and took the case.
Michael was no stranger to high-profile self-defense cases. Three years earlier, during his last year of law school, Michael earned a position as a law clerk on the defense team in the George Zimmerman case. That is where he met Don West, who now serves as National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe. That’s where I met both Michael and Don. When Michael took on the DeRossett case, he did so with a pledge from Don and me that we would provide support throughout the process. And we did, Don to a much larger extent than me, and we saw it through to a high-profile week-long self-defense immunity hearing and through a months-long appellate court process that ended in the complete exoneration of John DeRossett.
Normally, lawyers (and consultants like me) cannot openly discuss the details of cases they were involved in out of respect for the privacy of the accused. Don says, “The last thing they want years later is a public discussion about what may have been the worst moment of their life when they were involved in a self-defense case, shot and killed someone in lawful self-defense, and were ultimately acquitted, but would really like to close that book and keep it closed. Out of respect for that, in addition to the ethical requirements, we don’t talk about those cases, unless it’s a very special circumstance with very special permissions.”
Michael says the DeRossett case is one of those cases with special permissions. “In John’s case, he really got a bad rap. I think there was a coordinated effort by law enforcement in a case where they empirically screwed up and tried to cover their tracks by painting him out to be, not just a person who wanted to injure or kill cops, but also a pimp and a person who was taking advantage of others.” John granted Michael, Don, and me permission to publicly discuss his story, in part to help counter the misinformation that was spread about him, but also so that his ordeal could provide lessons for other concealed carriers and armed defenders. It’s important to point out that DeRossett was not a CCW Safe Member, and Don and I contributed to his defense in our own independent private capacities.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be able to provide you with a unique inside look at a legal defense for a self-defense shooting, and we’ll draw some important lessons about how a criminal prosecution can impact an entire extended family, the problems with warning shots, and some important caveats for pretrial immunity in stand-your-ground states, but first, it’s worth exploring one of the most important lessons from the DeRossett case, and that involves the risks associated with making life and death decisions with incomplete information or errant assumptions.
John didn’t know who had come to his house that night. His assumption was wrong. John didn’t know why the men were there. His assumption was wrong. John didn’t know how many men there were. He was literally and figuratively in the dark when he fired his pistol at the sky. Don would remind us that, legally, a warning shot IS the use of deadly force, and the legal justifications for firing a warning shot are the same as the legal justifications for firing a fatal self-defense shot. Don would also remind us that defenders can be justified in self-defense even when they were wrong about the facts, as long as their mistakes were reasonable considering the circumstances. Don says, “That’s why it doesn’t matter legally that they were, in fact, police officers. What mattered, and the appellate court made this very clear when the facts were finally distilled, was what was going on in John’s head. He didn’t believe they were police officers; he believed they were intruders, and that – based upon all of the information, the lighting conditions, and other circumstances – that was a reasonable conclusion.”
While being mistaken about the circumstances doesn’t immediately invalidate a self-defense claim, it certainly makes the legal defense infinitely more complicated, and, no matter what the legal result, it compounds the tragedy of the shooting itself. Obviously, it behooves armed defenders to have as much information about the situation as possible before pulling the trigger so they can prevent a senseless tragedy and avoid a nightmarish prosecution. In John’s case, with his niece screaming for help as she was being forcibly taken from her home, John didn’t have a lot of time to explore alternatives to using deadly force, but there are a couple of steps John could have taken to better understand the situation and avert disaster.
The front yard of John’s house was very dark at night. While the two deputies who provided backup to the plain-clothed officer weren’t wearing uniforms, they did have black sweatshirts that read “SHERIFF” on the sleeves. The print, however, was not reflective, and in the darkened yard, it was impossible for John to see it. Had John invested in good exterior lighting prior to this incident, when he ultimately came to the door, he likely would have noticed that one of the men struggling with his niece was a deputy, and he would have stood down. Had John thought to bring a flashlight along with his pistol, he might have avoided the tragedy. So many of the choices that armed defenders can make to avoid a self-defense shooting are made well before they pull the trigger. As an armed defender, however much you have invested in your firearms, you should consider making an equal investment in other home security measures. Cameras, motion sensors, and lights can not only provide a deterrent to potential intruders but also help you identify the true nature of a perceived threat.
Retired Army captain and firearms instructor Claude Werner is a huge advocate for communication and verbal commands during self-defense encounters. When John reached the front door, if he had yelled out “Who is there!” or “Let her go!”, then he would have very likely heard in reply “Sheriff’s department!” or “She’s under arrest!” Instead, when John decided to use deadly force, even in the form of a warning shot, he was answered with similar deadly force, and he found himself in a gunfight that jeopardized the lives of everyone involved, including the very person he was trying to protect, who was, in fact, grazed by a bullet during the shootout.
The lesson for armed defenders and concealed carriers is that, in a potential self-defense situation, it is important to arm yourself with all the information you can before you resort to deadly force. Before you discharge your firearm, it is important to identify what or who you are shooting at and to make an effort to discern their intentions. Consider introducing light and voice commands into your self-defense tool kit. Whenever a defender hurts or kills someone who ultimately did not provide a true threat, Claude Werner calls that a “negative outcome,” even when no one is prosecuted. To avoid killing or maiming a family member, a drunk neighbor, a delivery driver – or a cop – do your best to clarify the true nature of the threat before you shoot.
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