A Tale of Two Warning Shots

Post Date: June 5, 2013

A man found himself in a riot near Miami. He came across a woman trapped in her car surrounded by men he thought were going to kill her. He took his legally owned .38 revolver and fired it into the air. The men took off, and he was able to extract the woman from her car, presumably saving her life.
In September 2009, a different man was visiting a friend, an elderly woman, in Keystone Heights. The woman’s grandson, who had been violent toward her in the past, screamed at his grandmother, and threatened her. The man retrieved a pistol from his truck and fired it into the ground, and another moments later as the grandson and his friends left the area.
In both cases, a man fired a warning shot in a situation each thought was necessary to protect a third party he presumed to be in danger. In neither case was anyone injured or killed.
Unfortunately, the similarities end there.
The man in the first case was Don Horn, then an Assistant State Attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit. According to Mr. Buddy Jacobs, General Counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association (FPAA), Mr. Horn was given the “Gene Berry Award” by the FPAA in part for his actions during the riot. Mr. Horn is now Chief Assistant State Attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit.
The man in the second case is Ronald Thompson, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Army who earned more than 5,000 hours volunteering on behalf of his fellow veterans at a North Florida VA Hospital. For his actions, however, Thompson was given no award and no promotion. Rather, State Attorney Angela Coreycharged Thompson with four counts of aggravated assault. He was convicted on all four counts and given a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence under Florida’s “10-20-Life” law. Mr. Thompson was recently granted a new trial, and though he has already served three years in prison (the sentence offered by Corey’s office in a pre-trial plea offer), he is scheduled to be retried this year. Already in poor health, if Mr. Thompson is convicted he will almost certainly die in prison.
As has been pointed out repeatedly here and elsewhere, it is true that, when it comes to cases like Mr. Horn’s and Mr. Thompson’s “reasonable minds will vary” as to whether an act is self-defense or aggravated assault. But the same prosecutors who gave an award to Mr. Horn now argue to judges and juries in cases like Thompson’s that a warning shot is itself evidence a defendant was not in fear for his or her life, then use that evidence to obtain convictions in aggravated assault cases. Given that “reasonable minds will vary,” it is almost certainly the case that whether a judge or jury accepts a self-defense claim or not is largely a matter of chance. As a result, cases like Mr. Horn’s and Mr. Thompson’s – i.e., cases that share virtually all of the relevant facts – can yield wildly different outcomes.
Here’s how to fix it.

~Greg Newburn
Florida Project Director

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