Wrong Place, Wrong People, Wrong Time
Firearms instructor and use of force expert John Farnam warns concealed carriers that “We don’t need to go to stupid places, and associate with stupid people, and be involved in stupid sorts of things.” This pithy quip is John’s way of encouraging armed defenders to use good judgment and avoid going to dangerous locations where there is a high potential for conflict. John asks, “When you get involved in a lethal force incident on the sidewalk in front of the Drunken Monkey Bar at 1:30 in the morning, how much sympathy do you think you’re going to get from a jury?”
In the high-profile cases we’ve explored, we have found that prosecutors are particularly aggressive in cases where a defender knowingly leaves a place of relative safety to engage in a confrontation, and juries in these cases can be unforgiving, as they were in the case of Gyrell Lee.
Gyrell Lee watched in horror as Quinton Epps shot his cousin Jamieal Walker in the streets of Elizabeth City, NC just after midnight on New Year’s Day 2013. Then Epps turned the gun towards Lee, but Lee shot first. Earlier in the evening, Lee had been celebrating the holiday in Walker’s front yard when Epps drove by and engaged in a verbal altercation with Walker. The encounter ended without incident, but Epps drove by several more times throughout the evening, with each exchange becoming more heated than the last. At one point, Lee retrieved a pistol from his car “just in case,” he said.
During the final encounter, Epps drove slowly past the cousins and stopped in the street a few houses down. Lee and Walker decided to walk over and confront Epps. The encounter quickly turned violent. Walker punched Epps, and then Epps shot Walker in the stomach. That’s when Lee killed the attacker. He claimed self-defense, but a jury convicted him of second-degree murder, and while Lee made several other errors – including fleeing the scene and failing to call 9-1-1 – it is likely the jury partially blamed Lee for instigating the violent encounter when he chose to arm himself and leave a place of relative safety to confront Epps with his cousin.
Michael Drejka, a middle-aged man in Clearwater, Florida, decided to reproach motorist Britnay Jacobs for parking in a marked handicapped spot outside a convenience store. As the two argued, Jacob’s partner, Markis McGlockton, exited the store, marched up to Drejka, and shoved him violently to the ground. Fearful that McGlockton would continue the assault, Drejka drew his concealed pistol, and after a notable pause, fired a single fatal round.
While the State Attorney ultimately issued criminal charges against Drejka, at first, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri declined to arrest, citing Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and stating that someone is “immune from arrest if their conduct is arguably within the parameters of ‘stand your ground.’” Others argued that stand your ground shouldn’t apply to defenders who go out of their way to initiate a conflict. Attorney Benjamin Crump told reporters, “You can’t start a confrontation and kill somebody and say, ‘Oh, I was just standing my ground.’” While the actual law is more complicated than that, the sentiment likely rang true for the jurors who convicted Drejka of manslaughter despite reviewing security camera video of McGlockton assaulting the defender.
Kyle Rittenhouse armed himself with a rifle and traveled from Illinois to Wisconsin with the stated purpose of helping defend local businesses in Kenosha after two nights of violent protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. When chaos erupted on the third night, Rittenhouse found himself targeted by a mob of nefarious characters. One, Joseph Rosenbaum, tried to strip Rittenhouse of his rifle. Cornered and surrounded, Rittenhouse fired and killed his assailant. Three others attacked Rittenhouse as he fled for safety. He shot two of them, killing one.
Rittenhouse stood trial for a host of charges and won an acquittal on all counts. The verdict was controversial, however, because many people felt Rittenhouse bore responsibility for the deadly encounters because he knowingly armed himself and left a place of safety to go to the scene of a riot. What likely saved Rittenhouse from conviction was ample video evidence showing that the defendant made deliberate efforts to flee each of the brazen attackers, resorting to deadly force only when he had been cornered, knocked to the ground, or confronted by an armed attacker.
The cases of Gyrell Lee, Michael Drejka, and Kyle Rittenhouse sparked controversy because, even though they were each clearly under attack when they used deadly force, each defender deliberately put himself in a situation where a conflict was practically inevitable. Legally, these cases were close calls, and it was up to the jurors to use their discretion to make the tough decisions. As John Farnam implies, a defender would ideally like to have a jury’s sympathy when facing trial. Lee, Drejka, and Rittenhouse likely lost sympathy with their juries for seeking out conflict. Lee and Drejka made other critical mistakes that tilted the scales against them, and they were convicted. Rittenhouse, thanks in part to his resolute effort to escape his attackers, managed to overcome any sympathy he squandered by taking a rifle to a riot – but it was a long expensive prosecution that permanently maligned his reputation and turned his young life upside down.
John Farnam says being an armed citizen comes with certain responsibilities. “When you carry a gun around,” he says, “you start looking at the kinds of places you go, the hours of the day you go there, the kinds of people you associate with, and make adjustments as necessary.” The lesson for concealed carriers is that when you holster your weapon, you have an implicit obligation to avoid confrontations that have the potential to turn violent. If you are ever forced to use deadly force to end a confrontation that you initiated, you will likely lose the sympathy of a jury, and that is difficult to overcome. “As a general statement,” John says, “when the fight comes to you through no invitation of your own, and you take care of business, you’re on pretty firm ground. When you go to the fight … then your case for self-defense is going to be a lot more difficult.” As a concealed carrier, make every effort to avoid being in the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time.