Appeals Court Overturns "Stand Your Ground" Case Because Jury Instructions Were Too Confusing

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By most accounts, Raul Rodriguez was looking for a fight the night of May 2, 2010.

Pete Fornols, who lived next door to the retired firefighter, testified in court how Rodriguez called him numerous times that evening, seething about a loud party down the block in their rural northeast Harris County neighborhood. Rodriguez eventually stopped by Fornols' house, "rambling on about the noise" coming from Kelly Danaher's place, Fornols testified.

Rodriguez seemed aggressive, the neighbor said. "His eyes were bulgy, and he was in a — almost like a frantic state, like, you know, he was just about to pop."

Fornols could see Rodriguez had two handguns tucked in his pants — one in the front, one in the back — "in plain sight." Fornols called in an anonymous noise complaint with police, hoping to calm Rodriguez, he said. Between 11 p.m. and midnight, Rodriguez phoned Fornols three more times; Fornols didn't answer. About 20 minutes after midnight, Fornols heard three pops, the sound of gunshots. He looked out the window to see if Rodriguez was shooting off his gun in the back yard again (that was apparently something Rodriguez was known to do).

Those gunshots were caught on a 22-minute video Rodriguez recorded of himself standing on the side of the road, arguing with party goers across the street, pulling his gun, calling police, and eventually shooting and killing Danaher. When Harris County deputies arrived, two men were struggling to hold Rodriguez down on the ground.

Rodriguez went on trial for murder in 2012 just months after Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, sparking a national conversation about so-called Stand Your Ground laws that have expanded how and when shooters can claim self-defense in using deadly force.

At trial, Rodriguez's defense team cited Texas' own iteration of the law, the state's so-called Castle Doctrine, but jurors didn't buy it and convicted Rodriguez of murder, sentencing him to 40 years in prison. Critics of Stand Your Ground laws heralded the case as a victory. At the time, Progress Texas wrote, "Thankfully, the court found that in no way did encroaching on your neighbor's property, bullying partygoers with deadly threats, or exacerbating a noise complaint into a homicide constitute 'self-defense.'"

But on Thursday the state's First Court of Appeals overturned Rodriguez's conviction, saying the instructions given to jurors were so complex, confusing, and, at points, erroneous that Rodriguez didn't get a fair trial. Prosecutors told the Chron Thursday that they would likely appeal the decision. "This was a hard fought conviction that we had hoped would stand," Assistant Harris County District Attorney Clint Morgan told the daily.

Rodriguez's appellate lawyers argued that the state erroneously added to the jury instructions parts of the penal code that deal with "unlawful carrying of a handgun" by a concealed-carry permit holder (namely, that you're in violation of that law if you flash your handgun "in plain view of another person in a public place," hence the concealed part). The state even conceded that the language shouldn't have been there, and Rodriguez's attorneys argued that the wording must have confused jurors into thinking that, since Rodriguez failed to abide by the concealed-carry law, his self-defense claim should be thrown out.

Ultimately, the First Court of Appeals cited "conflicting evidence" surrounding Rodriguez's claims of self-defense, saying the conviction was not a forgone conclusion, and overturned the jury's guilty verdict.

What was that "conflicting evidence" that, if a jury had been given clearer charging instructions, may have cleared Rodriguez? The judges point to the fact that Rodriguez suffered a broken leg in the incident as possible justification; while the court doesn't say how, exactly, Rodriguez broke his leg, it's reasonable to think he was injured when Danaher's friends tackled him to the ground after he shot an unarmed man. Rodriguez clearly drew his gun on the men, the court concedes, but some of the partygoers "threatened Rodriguez with bodily injury"; again, it doesn't seem entirely odd that threats were exchanged after a neighbor pulled a gun on some drunk guys over loud music at a party.

The most compelling argument for self-defense seems to be that, as the court tells it, a drunk guy screamed and rushed Rodriguez right before he dropped his camera and shot at the crowd. You can watch the end of the video and decide for yourself if that's indeed what happened.

On top of all of this, it's clear from the record that Rodriguez detested Danaher. The day before he shot the 36-year-old teacher, court records show Rodriguez had seen Danaher walk over to his neighbor's house to borrow some tools. "What did that cocksucker want?" Rodriguez asked his neighbor. "I wouldn't loan that son of a bitch sweat off my balls if he was dying of thirst. He's one of the son of a bitches that keep us awake at night with loud music."

Prosecutors argued that Rodriguez simply manufactured his self-defense claim — shoot first, and claim you feared for your life once police start asking questions. On his phone call with police before the shooting, Rodriguez repeatedly says things like "I am in fear for my life" and "I'm standing my ground here."

At trial, the state called as a witness a neighbor Rodriguez had tried to convince to get a concealed handgun license. The woman testified that Rodriguez was "very self-confident, very assured" and "excited" during the conversation. As she told it on the stand, here's how Rodriguez explained the benefits of carrying a concealed weapon:

"He had suggested I get hand—a concealed handgun license. And I told him I didn't want one. But he told me it would be my benefit, because if I had a handgun and if I was in public anywhere, then if anybody was, you know, bothering me and if I needed to shoot somebody, that as long as I told the authorities that I was in fear for my life and that I needed to defend myself, and that I believed they had weapons and I stood my ground. And so I shot the son of a bitch."

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