#146 When Do You Shoot? (2006)

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

I woke up this morning to a news report that a Milwaukee man had been beaten to death by a gang of a dozen or more kids.  Apparently, a pack of parent-less brats were blocking the street and, when this unfortunate man honked his horn to get their attention, they ripped him from his car and assaulted him.  The beating resulted in the death of a 52 year-old man. 

This story caught my attention because a friend, David Santistevan, found himself in a similar situation two years ago.  He wasn't in Milwaukee or another urban armpit.  He was in a small town in Idaho.  He wasn't confronted by a large gang, but by two young men on ATVs in a dark alley behind a bar.  An Idaho court decided that in defending himself from what he perceived to be a threat, he had committed "attempted murder" and sentenced him to 22-45 years in prison. 

I don't know all of the details of the event, other than what I read in local Idaho newspapers and what David has told me.  The newspaper reports were so biased that I found it hard to believe that David could receive a fair trial in that state.  I know that David shot both of the young men and one was critically injured and the other received a minor wound.  I also know that both of the boys were white and David is Hispanic in an often radically-racist, state.  The newspapers and prosecutor regularly called the men "boys" and "kids," but one of the "kids" was six-two and weighed 220 pounds.  David is five-five, 50-years-old, and an overweight guitar player.  I doubt that anyone would imagine an Idaho court returning a similar verdict if a 50-year-old white man had been in a similar situation with two large, young Hispanic men. 

In reading the reports from the trial, I felt the judge clearly spent a lot of time posing as a champion of justice and the Great White American Way.  I suspect his posturing means that judges hold elected offices in Idaho.  In his closing statement, Judge Elgee said, “Mr. Santistevan did all he could do to commit two murders.  This has been a life sentence for the victims. I considered the sentence very carefully when I imposed it and can see no basis to change it.”  Ridiculous.  Doing "all he could" to commit murder would have resulted in two deaths.  David fired two shots in panic, left an easy target on the ground, made no effort to catch the other victim, ran away from the scene, and hid in his home.  He was obviously terrified by every aspect of this event.  Nothing about that set of actions resembles an intent to commit murder.  In all, I felt that David took a ride on a railroad in his trial.

What David did was akin to the old American proverb, "don't bring a knife to a gunfight."  In his case, he brought the gun while his antagonists brought youth and we may never know what else.  There was no effort in the police "investigation" or in the trial to determine what incited the fear that caused David to fire his weapon at the two young men.  As I mentioned before, the local newspapers made no effort at presenting an unbiased report of the incident or, later, David's character.  The Wood River Journal, the local paper, was particularly one-sided, going as far as collecting and printing derogatory character statements before the trial and pronouncing David guilty long before the trial began.

Even with that background, it took the jury 15 hours of deliberation to convict David and, by the newspaper report "None of them looked in the direction of the defendant."  In other words, they couldn't face the man they had convicted.  Who could?  Presented with a half-hearted police investigation, a biased community, a politically motivated judge, and a jury that faced returning to a community that had already convicted David and would have been happy to hang him from the nearest tree, the jury did what they had to do; they found him guilty and ran back to their ordinary lives as quickly as possible. 

In the past couple of decades, Idaho has regularly been a national embarrassment. Idaho has become a dumping ground for slack-jawed losers and idle and addled trust fund babies, often demonstrated by White-Power-Aryan-Nation crap, Scientology-Creationist-Intelligent-Design superstitious jabber, and rich-Californians-turned-small-town-hicks nuttiness. These days, that is less of a character flaw, since the whole country seems to be going to the conservative dogs.  If Idaho has a fault, today, it's that the state is slightly worse than the rest of the country in a time when it would be so easy to be better. 

The only clear message this trial conveys is that Idaho is stuck in the conundrum that haunts the rest of the country; guns are good/bad.  In this case, David defended himself with a gun and that resulted in an attempted murder conviction.  If he were white and his attackers were brown, black, yellow, or red the result would be different.  If he'd have tried to defend himself with a baseball bat, he probably would have been beaten to a pulp but he wouldn't be in prison today.  If he'd have tried to defend himself with a knife, he'd probably be dead.  He successfully used a gun and he's in prison.  The judge tacked on considerable extra time to his sentence because David used a gun in the "crime."  But politicians, everywhere, take thousands and millions of dollars from the gun lobby to make sure criminals have easy access to as many guns as they desire.  Most likely, this Idaho judge and prosecutor will receive political contributions from the Idaho gun industry in their next campaign. 

As a nation, we consistently defend the right to own guns but are less convinced that we have the right to use them in defense.  If anything good can come from this poor excuse for justice, I hope it causes a few people to review their position on handguns and licensing.  A lot of the misery caused by this incident could have been easily prevented with competent law enforcement, before the event, and simple regulation of handguns.  People kill people with guns.  Maybe that's not such a good thing.

January 2006

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