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July 14, 2008

"He's a nice guy, but..."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to deliver what came to be known as his "but speech" in which he would remind the audience that the word "but" was the one word that completely changes everything that goes before it. For example: “He's a nice guy, but…”

Recently, I read a couple of articles that made me recall that speech. The first appeared in the academic journal Psychological Science and detailed a study in which researchers from Knox College found that male college students who held a gun rather than a child's toy for 15 minutes had elevated levels of testosterone. These students would then add three times as much hot sauce to a glass of water that they knew another test student subsequently had to drink.

The same day, I read a story that appeared in both the Associated Press and the New York Times. It reported that a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, had concluded that a man who gunned down two illegal immigrants who were burglarizing his neighbor's house had used justifiable deadly force and should not be charged with murder.

The shooter, Joe Horn, a retired computer manager, called 911 during the incident and told the emergency operator he saw two men burglarizing his neighbor’s house who were “black.” The operator repeatedly told him to remain in his house and stay calm. Horn was informed that a unit was on the way in response and that there “ain't no property worth shooting somebody over.” Horn would not listen, however. He referred to Texas’ recently enacted Shoot First Law and told the operator “I’m not going to let them get away with this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] … I'm going to shoot. I’m going to shoot ... I’m going to kill them.” A detective had just arrived at the scene when Horn fired three blasts of buckshot from his 12-gauge shotgun into the backs of the unarmed Latino burglars, Hernando Torres and Diego Ortiz, killing them both.

I am sure there is no connection between these two stories, but...

1 comment:

  1. Originally written 12.23.07:

    I’ve been following a couple of legal cases over the last few weeks that, although widely separated geographically, are both related insomuch as they deal with guns, racism, and the legal use of force to protect oneself.

    The first, in Pasadena, Tx (a Houston suburb) relates to the shooting deaths of two undocumented Latinos (both with prior criminal records) who were killed after burglarizing a vacant home (this is undisputed).

    You may be aware that Texas has what’s known as the “Castle Doctrine” also known as the “No Retreat” law which means that, contrary to ordinary use of force in self-defense laws, one does not need to ‘retreat’ to a point of no further safe retreat before using deadly force to protect oneself. Basically, if you feel you’re being threatened (and how threatened, and by what, is undefined), you’re entitled to use deadly force to protect yourself. Coupled with Texas’ ‘concealed-carry’ laws, it makes for very polite conversations held at very safe distances.

    A recent newspaper story reports: The Texas penal code says someone can use deadly force to protect a third party's property. To do so, you have to meet certain conditions, one of which is "to prevent the other who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property."

    On Nov. 14th a White, 61 year-old, Pasadena resident, Joe Horn, noticed two people breaking into his neighbor’s home. He called 911 and got his shotgun. Here’s the 911 transcript:

    …the audiotape of Mr. Horn’s 911 calls. In a low, calm and steady voice, he said he saw the men breaking in and asked: “I’ve got a shotgun; do you want me to stop them?”

    The Pasadena emergency operator responded: “Nope. Don’t do that. Ain’t no property worth shooting somebody over, O.K.?”

    Mr. Horn said: “But hurry up, man. Catch these guys will you? Cause, I ain’t going to let them go.”

    Mr. Horn then said he would get his shotgun.

    The operator said, “No, no.” But Mr. Horn said: “I can’t take a chance of getting killed over this, O.K.? I’m going to shoot.”

    The operator told him not to go out with a gun because officers would be arriving.

    “O.K.,” Mr. Horn said. “But I have a right to protect myself too, sir,” adding, “The laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it.”

    The operator said, “You’re going to get yourself shot.” But Mr. Horn replied, “You want to make a bet? I’m going to kill them.”

    Moments later he said, “Well here it goes, buddy. You hear the shotgun clicking and I’m going.”

    Then he said: “Move, you’re dead.”

    There were two quick explosions, then a third, and the 911 call ended.

    “I had no choice,” Mr. Horn said when he called 911 back. “They came in the front yard with me, man.”

    Captain Corbett said that a plainclothes officer had pulled up just in time to see Mr. Horn pointing his shotgun at both men across his front yard, that Mr. Ortiz had at one point started to run in a way that took him closer to Mr. Horn, and that both men “received gunfire from the rear.”

    After the event Mr. Horn went into seclusion, to avoid the publicity, and a grand jury will determine whether or not he’s liable for any criminal charges. Lest one stereotype Mr. Horn as some gun-totin’ Texas vigilante yahoo he is… “according to his attorney… so overwrought with grief and overwhelmed by the media glare that he's left his home… "Joe has never been anything but a gentle person. He's not the type of monster that they are making him out to be". Perhaps his attempt to play ‘John Wayne’ resulted in his unexpected confrontation with the realities of taking human lives… who knows?

    But, based upon the apparent facts, and Texas law, as well as Texan’s well-known bent for ‘lawnorder’, the fact that the two victims were Latinos - not a plus amongst many White Texans, were known criminals - another ‘not a plus’, and were also undocumented immigrants (known in Texas’ polite circles as ‘illegal aliens’) - another major ‘not a plus’ - it seems unlikely that Mr. Horn will suffer any legal consequences of his actions, regardless of what happens within his own conscience.


    In Riverhead, NY a 54 year-old Black man, John White (go figure…), was convicted of 2nd degree manslaughter yesterday following the shooting death of a 17 year-old White youth on Aug. 9th, 2006 (NY Man Guilty in Death of White Teen).

    It seems Mr. White’s 19 year-old son, Aaron, had been at a party where some White kids had determined (wrongly) that Aaron had put up a YouTube video in which he was supposed to have threatened to rape one of the White girls at the party. The outraged White youths chased Aaron home, where they drove their cars up toward the house, leaving their lights on, facing the home.

    Aaron got his Dad who‘d been asleep and, rejecting a shotgun in the house, picked up a handgun from his garage and confronted a White youth in his yard and, here, the reports all seem to be vague… did the shooting occur on Mr. White’s property and, if so, what was the victim doing on it? Regardless, the confrontation, that included the youth & his friends shouting racial epithets, ended with the youth being shot, point blank, in the face and dying.

    White's attorneys have referred to Cicciaro [the victim] and his friends as a violent and racist "lynch mob," and maintain the gun went off accidentally when a drunken Cicciaro grabbed for it (Jury asks to hear testimony again in Miller Place case).

    Mr. White's actions were explained as follows:

    John White grew up hearing stories from family members about the racial hatred of the Deep South, including the Ku Klux Klan's torching of his grandfather's business in Alabama in the 1920s.

    So when white teenagers showed up on his Long Island doorstep last year, spewing racial epithets… he feared he was about to be attacked by a lynch mob. He grabbed a gun and, after an argument with the group, fatally shot one of the teens.

    The case has been… marked by White's emotional testimony as he recalled memories of racial violence from his family's past. He recalled seeing the headlights of the teenagers' cars on that night in 2006 and thinking the worst.

    "In my family history, that's how the Klan comes," White said. "They pull up. They blind you with their lights." He broke down in tears on the podium, insisting: "I didn't mean to shoot this young man. This young man was another child of God." (NY Man on Trial in Slaying of White Teen)

    The prosecutor made the point that the attack on Mr. White’s grandfather occurred 30 years before Mr. White was born and that the KKK aspect didn’t come up until the case came to trial. The story didn’t say when he expected it to come up if not at trial.**

    At any rate, Mr. White’s sentencing is still pending with a potential of 5 - 15 years. He remains free, on bail, and his attorney says they intend to appeal the verdict (which nearly resulted in a hung jury).

    So, here’s the paradox: In Texas, a White man kills two non-whites who pose no threat to his life, limb, or property and will likely suffer no consequences for it while, in New York state, a non-white man kills a White youth who is on his property, drunk, posing a direct threat, in the company of other threatening supporters, but he is at risk of imprisonment.

    When I started writing this I thought I’d have to elucidate the conclusions more succinctly but, as I re-read this, they’re all too evidently clear as is...