A message about the right to defend yourself

March 20, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Joseph Bannister felt the pistol in his belly and heard the man with the gun say, "Give it up."

"Please don't shoot me," Bannister said, glancing about and seeing a second assailant at his side. "You can have everything."

It was 8:30 on the morning of Oct. 21, 1992, at Ettings and Baker in West Baltimore. Bannister, 37, lives here with his mother but works for an accounting firm in Washington. The two guys attacking him were junkies looking for money for a fix.

"Please," Bannister said again, "don't shoot me." He eased his hand down and tried to move the gun away from his body, and found himself gripping the barrel with his left hand. He is 6-feet-2 and muscular. The gunman, Clarence Jackson, was 5-feet-9.

"Let go of the gun," Jackson said, "or I'm gonna kill you."

Bannister grabbed Jackson's wrist with his right hand. The two wrestled for possession of the pistol, struggling into the gutter and grappling all the way across Baker Street. Bannister lost sight of the second assailant. He began screaming -- "Help, help, call the police" -- again and again, until he felt his throat growing raw.

No one emerged from any of the homes in the block. Minutes passed, and the struggle for the gun continued. Now, as the two men fought on the sidewalk on Ettings Street, Bannister saw a police car at a nearby intersection and screamed again for help.

"Police," cried the second assailant, standing several yards from the scuffling, hoping Jackson would run off.

"Police, there's police," said Bannister, hoping the same.

Instead, Jackson backed Bannister into a narrow alley between rowhouses and said, "Now I'm gonna kill you, you SOB." He had his finger on the trigger but couldn't get an angle for a shot, so he threw a punch: Not much effect. The two men were too close to get any muscle behind it.

Bannister continued to cry for help, continued to hope for the arrival of police, or the sound of a siren. They struggled to a wall. Bannister saw Jackson's teeth gritting, and heard him say, "You better not run, I'm gonna kill you."

Now Bannister saw the pistol come close to his face. He felt weak from all the fighting, all the screaming for help. He could look down the barrel of the gun now and imagine a bullet tearing into his face. And then, feeling petrified, feeling abandoned, he found a surge of energy and yanked the gun down.

The pistol came loose, and the two men fumbled for it. Bannister grabbed it. Jackson grabbed his neck and pulled him from behind. Bannister turned and fired the pistol, then fired three more times, then saw Jackson running off.

Now the police arrived. Bannister held the gun between his thumb and forefinger, pointing toward the ground, showing he meant no harm. The police approached him in the alley. And then one slammed him into a wall, cocked his gun, and placed the barrel under Bannister's ear. Jackson was lying dead in the street -- and Bannister was charged with his murder.

"This case should never have been brought," Bannister's attorney, Dwight Pettit, told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury last week. "This man should get the Citizen of the Year Award for defending himself."

"This," Assistant State's Attorney Ahmet Hisim reminded the jury, "is a court of law. I'm not saying [Bannister] wasn't scared. I'm not saying he wasn't being robbed. But the law doesn't give him the right. . ."

Right? Whose rights? Last week, in Judge Andre Davis' courtroom, there were questions about rights and about wrongs. Could the police have stopped the fight before there was gunplay? Didn't anyone living on the block hear Bannister's cries for help? (One woman admitted she did, but by the time she opened her door she heard the gunshots, and so she closed her door again.) When does a person being attacked have the right (( to strike back?

In a city where such incidents are not quite unusual, the questions are important. Bannister was on his way to work when attacked. He's got a bachelor's degree in accounting, a master's degree in business taxation, and his career has been thrown into turmoil by the attack.

Jackson, dead in the street, was found to have cocaine and heroin in his system. The man who was with him admitted Jackson tried to rob Bannister -- while carefully distancing himself from any part in the attack.

In court, prosecutor Hisim acknowledged that Bannister had been attacked, and so chose to deal in legalisms, in the cool logic of the law instead of the heat of street passions.

"Was [Bannister] scared?" Hisim asked the jury. "Probably so. Was he enraged? I don't think so."

And, on that slim distinction between fear and rage, the state's attorney's office seemed to decide that this was a case worth prosecuting.

"We don't want anarchy," Hisim said. "You can't just take a gun from someone and, without that [person] showing more force, fire. That's vigilantism."

"That's crazy," said defense attorney Pettit. "This man's been attacked. Where's the time to think, to deliberate, to consider? You want to live, that's all."

Last week, a jury agreed. After 90 minutes of deliberation, they found Bannister not guilty of all charges.

"A message," Pettit called it.

He meant a message to street criminals. But maybe it's a message to the state's attorney's office, too.

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