Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Maryland: Two killings test right of self-defense

Karen L. Foxx had sought court orders to keep her estranged husband away, had filed criminal assault charges against him and changed her phone number. She also bought a gun to protect herself, and last Saturday, her lawyer says, Foxx did just that when she fatally shot her husband.

Now the Randallstown woman awaits word on whether she will be charged with a crime - one of two recent cases in which the legal right to self-defense is under examination. The Randallstown shooting occurred two weeks after a 57-year-old gas station owner was attacked by three would-be robbers at the upscale Village of Cross Keys shopping center in North Baltimore, grabbed his own gun and fatally shot one of the assailants.

In such cases, the decision to file charges often hangs on whether prosecutors or grand jurors determine that the shooters reasonably believed that their lives were threatened before pulling the trigger, legal experts interviewed this week said. In a 2001 case involving two brothers who killed a man after lying in wait for burglars, a Baltimore County grand jury decided the shooting was justified, even though the intruders were unarmed. In a 2003 case, two businessmen were acquitted of murder charges after shooting a man who broke into their East Baltimore warehouse.

Given the police accounts of the two recent shootings, the experts interviewed say it's unlikely that either Foxx or the gas station owner, Mark A. Beckwith, will be charged. "I don't think a crime has occurred. I don't think it's even close," said Richard M. Karceski, a criminal defense attorney who represented one of two brothers cleared in the 2001 shooting of three unarmed intruders at the brothers' concrete plant in Glyndon. "Just because an unfortunate situation occurs and someone loses their life does not mean a crime has been committed."

Prosecutors in both cases say no decision has been made. A homicide can lead to a first-degree murder charge, to such lesser charges as second-degree murder or manslaughter, or to no charge. S. Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County, said it could be "a while" before all the necessary witnesses are interviewed and documents are gathered to be presented to a grand jury.

Baltimore police have said that Beckwith had a permit for his gun and would probably not face criminal charges. Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said that prosecutors have not decided whether to charge Beckwith, present the case to a grand jury or rule the shooting a justified use of deadly force.

Both jurisdictions have seen high-profile cases in recent years of people claiming self-defense after the use of deadly force. In April 2001, a Baltimore County grand jury declined to indict Dominic "Tony" Geckle and Matthew Geckle, brothers in the shooting of three unarmed intruders at the Geckles' concrete plant. The brothers had armed themselves with shotguns and were spending the night in their warehouse after break-ins the two previous nights. One intruder was killed and two others were shot in the back.

Two years later, in January 2003, a Baltimore judge acquitted Harford County businessmen Kenny Der and Darrell R. Kifer of charges in the shooting of a drug addict who broke into their warehouse - and who, according to the defense, brandished a hammer and threatened to kill the men. Under Maryland law, a person may use deadly force to defend himself if he believes his life is in imminent danger, if that belief is reasonable and if he uses no more force than is "reasonably necessary." Legal experts said those issues will be at play in the cases of Foxx and Beckwith.

Baltimore County police said that Foxx, 35, called 911 last Saturday afternoon to report that she had just shot her estranged husband, 45-year-old Herman E. Bullock, in her Randallstown home - a two-story, end-of-row condominium to which officers had been dispatched numerous times on domestic calls. Foxx, an office secretary, told officers that her husband threatened her with an ax handle, police spokesman Bill Toohey said. Foxx shot him in the torso with a handgun, Toohey said. He said police did not know how many bullets struck Bullock

She filed criminal charges against Bullock in April 2003, telling police that he had scratched her, torn her shirt and punched her during an argument over her late work hours, court records show. Bullock was acquitted of second-degree assault in 2004.

Bullock's first wife also accused him of abusing her, filing for a protective order in October 1998 and for divorce six months later, pointing to "cruelty and excessively vicious conduct." During the ensuing custody battle, Bullock's first wife alleged that he had abused her in front of their children, dragged her down the stairs by her hair and abused their dog....

Beckwith, who lives in Bel Air and owns two Baltimore gas stations, pulled into the parking lot at Cross Keys the afternoon of March 17 to deposit several thousand dollars at his bank, defense attorney David E. Carey said. He apparently had been followed by three people intending to rob him, the lawyer said. "He got out of the car, stood up and, as is his practice when carrying a large amount of money, looked around," Carey said. Beckwith saw two assailants coming at him and tried to get back into his car, Carey said. The three men - one of whom had a gun, Beckwith told police - beat him and grabbed paper bags filled with money before Beckwith pulled a 9 mm Glock semiautomatic pistol from a shoulder holster, Carey said. Beckwith fired 16 shots at his assailants, police said, killing one man and wounding another.

Legal experts said Beckwith's case will likely depend on the statements of witnesses at the shopping center. "If this guy gets indicted on this case on those facts, there ain't no cows in Texas," Karceski said. "This is a case of perfect self-defense. If it were a slot machine, he'd have three cherries on this one because everything lines up."

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said state laws should be recast to grant crime victims the unquestionable right to protect themselves with force. "When a crime occurs, it's between the victim and the criminal," he said. "Law enforcement cannot get there in time, very often. The politicians aren't there and the gun control lobby certainly isn't there. What victims of crime need is options - and they need the law on their side."


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