Brothers go free in fatal shooting

Grand jury finds self-defense after Balto. Co. break-in

April 26, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County grand jury declined yesterday to indict either of the brothers involved in last month's shooting of three unarmed intruders at a concrete plant they own in Glyndon.

The jury of 12 men and eight women deliberated for less than a half-hour before deciding that Dominic "Tony" Geckle and Matthew Geckle acted in self-defense during the incident March 19 at Back River Supply Inc.

"It was an open-and-shut case," said one juror, who is barred by law from speaking about the case. "It was self-defense."

The grand jury could have indicted the Geckle brothers on charges of first- or second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter in the shootings, which left one man dead and two wounded.

The jurors reviewed written statements and heard about five hours of closed-door testimony from Baltimore County homicide detectives, one of the wounded suspects and Tony Geckle.

"We invited both sides," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor. "We told the grand jury everything they needed to know about the law and a decision has been made. ... We tried to present it straight down the middle."

O'Connor said the grand jury decided not to indict after examining the laws governing self-defense.

Under Maryland law, a person may use deadly force if he believes his life is in imminent danger, if that belief is reasonable and if he uses no more force than "reasonably necessary to defend" himself.

Richard G. Berger, an attorney for Matthew Geckle, 36, said his client was "ecstatic" about the jurors' decision.

"Homeowners and business owners should rest assured that should they be confronted with a violent felon or burglar, there still exists a right to use reasonable force to protect oneself without the fear of indictment," he said.

But the attorney for the family of Jonathan Steinbach, 24, who was killed, warned that the jury's decision sets a dangerous precedent.

"I think it absolutely sends the wrong message," said attorney Gary S. Bernstein. "But you are not going to get that message until one day, late at night, when some kid climbs over that fence to get a ball that lands on somebody's property.

"People who would have thought twice before they would have fired a gun will now think it is no different than [what] the Geckles did."

Bernstein said Steinbach's family, which plans to file a civil suit against the Geckles, "is clearly devastated" by the jury decision. "It's like he got murdered again."

Tony and Matthew Geckle had armed themselves with shotguns and were spending the night in their unlighted warehouse, in the 12200 block of Owings Mills Blvd., after break-ins the two previous nights.

Tony Geckle shot Steinbach, Justin Storto, 21, and Enrico L. Magliarella, 24, after they entered the warehouse.

Magliarella and Storto were shot in the back. Both men have been charged with burglary.

Berger said yesterday that the intruders were about 250 feet inside the warehouse before Tony Geckle, who had been sleeping on the first floor, knew they were there. Berger said the men were carrying flashlights, which Tony Geckle thought were weapons.

"It was not until the perpetrators came near where Tony was that he was jostled and saw movement toward him," Berger said. "The `ambush, lying in wait' theory was dispelled by the facts of this case. He feared for his safety and his life."

Matthew Geckle was asleep in a second-floor office and did not wake up until he heard gunfire, Berger and police said.

Berger said Matthew Geckle struck the wounded Magliarella and Steinbach with the butt of a shotgun, because they were attempting "to rise up."

Bernstein said Steinbach was struck as he pleaded for his life.

Tony Geckle, 31, testified for 90 minutes yesterday. Neither he nor his lawyer, Richard M. Karceski, would comment.

Storto's lawyer, Leonard H. Shapiro, said his client testified for about 45 minutes, telling the grand jury that he had been shot immediately after he heard someone say, "Freeze."

It took "as long as it takes you to pull the trigger," Shapiro said.

O'Connor said grand jurors heard "every piece of evidence" before they reached their decision.

But two lawyers for the burglary suspects and one legal expert were skeptical of O'Connor's contention that prosecutors were neutral during the grand jury proceedings.

Shapiro said he believes public opinion - not the law - played a role in how the case was handled.

Bernstein said he believes the jurors did not follow the law when they made their decision.

"Obviously, they voted with their emotions rather than their intellect," he said, noting that Maryland law does not permit someone to use deadly force to protect property.

Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, agreed.

Warnken said he thinks the Geckles used more force than necessary but understands why members of the grand jury decided not to indict them.

"Many citizens of the community are very anti-crime and very sympathetic of someone taking steps to protect their property," Warnken said. "They are going to draw the line where they think the line should be and not where the [law] says it should be."

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