Shooting Trial Shows How Vulnerable We Are

NOTEBOOK

March 24, 1991|By Alan Craver

At first glance, the Richard J. Leftwich trial looks like a clear-cut case of attempted murder.

Last April 28, the Aberdeen man pumpedfour bullets from a .22-caliber semiautomatic handgun into Rodolfo R. Gracia Jr. during a confrontation at Leftwich's apartment.

Leftwich looked guilty. He immediately confessed to police. He gave investigators the gun.

But the jury acquitted Leftwich of attempted murder and three related charges in a trial that ended March 15 in Harford Circuit Court.

On closer look, the Leftwich case is farfrom clear. If anything, it's frightening. What happened to Leftwichand Gracia could happen to almost anyone.

"These two men were thrown together by circumstances," jury foreman Jack C. Cammarata says.

Awakened by the screams of his wife, Leftwich discovers an intruder rifling through his home in the middle of the night. The intruder flees, leaving Leftwich and his wife, Wendy, at wits' end.

For the next 16 hours, the Leftwiches worry that the intruder may return. Then they hear a stranger outside their apartment, trying to open the locked door.

Leftwich takes his loaded handgun to confront the man at the door.

The "intruder" this time turns out to be Gracia, who lived across the parking lot at the Windsor Apartments complex.

Meanwhile, Gracia, who now lives in Carroll County, was coming home after a long day of gardening with a friend. He'd drunk about nine beers and three shots of whiskey during the day.

Knowing he could not drive, Gracia has his sister take him home. During the ride, he sleeps.

Once at the complex, where all the units look pretty much alike, Gracia says he assumed he was at his apartment. He goes to what he believed is his apartment door and tries to unlock it.

His key doesn't work. He jiggles the doorknob. Leftwich appears at the door, toting his handgun. A confrontation ensues.

Leftwich shoots Gracia in the stomach and once in each arm. A fourth bullet grazes Gracia's neck, behind the left ear.

Leftwich, a 25-year-old Army veteran, told the jury he was acting in self-defense. He was only trying to protecthis pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter.

"I tried to get Rudy Gracia out of my home," says Leftwich, a lay minister at River City Baptist Church in Perryman. "I would have sung 'Amazing Grace' if that would have gotten him out of my home."

Gracia battled for his lifeon an operating table at University Hospital's shock trauma unit in Baltimore for 7 1/2 hours. He spent a total of 17 days in the hospital.

For the next 11 months, Leftwich agonized over his fate. If convicted, he could face life in prison for the attempted murder charge.

Gracia also agonized. A man who regularly lifts weights and runs,the 26-year-old Texas native's left arm was partially paralyzed because one of the bullets caused nerve damage.

Leftwich and Gracia never met before the shooting, even though they not only lived as neighbors but also worked as contractors at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

When they saw each other again at the trial March 13 in the County Courthouse, a 4-foot high easel with a diagram of the shooting scene sat between them.

Families and friends of each man sat through the entire three days of testimony, up until when the men and women of the jury found Leftwich not guilty.

Before reaching its verdict, Cammarata says the jury had to decide who was the "aggressor" before the shooting.

Was it Gracia, who came to Leftwich's door?

Or was it Leftwich, who opened the door to confront Gracia?

Jurors believe that the confrontation would never have happened if Gracia had not goneto the wrong apartment, Cammarata says.

The jury didn't buy Assistant State's Attorney Michael Sanger's arguments that Leftwich planned the shooting: He kept a loaded gun, he took the gun to the door andhe opened the door.

Instead, Cammarata says, the jury found that Leftwich's actions are defended by the "castle doctrine," a legal defense in Maryland which states that a man's home is his castle and he has the right to protect it.

"Being in your own home," Cammarata says, "you don't have the obligation of retreating."

The jurors went home with this thought, Cammarata says: What happened to Leftwich could have easily happened to them.

"You're in your home. Someone could intrude. You could end up on trial for attempted murder," he says. "It's scary. It scares me."

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