Two killings test right of self-defense

Each case may turn on whether life was in danger


Karen L. Foxx had sought court orders to keep her estranged husband away, had filed criminal assault charges against him and changed her phone number. She also bought a gun to protect herself, and last Saturday, her lawyer says, Foxx did just that when she fatally shot her husband.

Now the Randallstown woman awaits word on whether she will be charged with a crime - one of two recent cases in which the legal right to self-defense is under examination.

The Randallstown shooting occurred two weeks after a 57-year-old gas station owner was attacked by three would-be robbers at the upscale Village of Cross Keys shopping center in North Baltimore, grabbed his own gun and fatally shot one of the assailants.

In such cases, the decision to file charges often hangs on whether prosecutors or grand jurors determine that the shooters reasonably believed that their lives were threatened before pulling the trigger, legal experts interviewed this week said.

In a 2001 case involving two brothers who killed a man after lying in wait for burglars, a Baltimore County grand jury decided the shooting was justified, even though the intruders were unarmed.

In a 2003 case, two businessmen were acquitted of murder charges after shooting a man who broke into their East Baltimore warehouse.

Given the police accounts of the two recent shootings, the experts interviewed say it's unlikely that either Foxx or the gas station owner, Mark A. Beckwith, will be charged.

"I don't think a crime has occurred. I don't think it's even close," said Richard M. Karceski, a criminal defense attorney who represented one of two brothers cleared in the 2001 shooting of three unarmed intruders at the brothers' concrete plant in Glyndon. "Just because an unfortunate situation occurs and someone loses their life does not mean a crime has been committed."

Prosecutors in both cases say no decision has been made. A homicide can lead to a first-degree murder charge, to such lesser charges as second-degree murder or manslaughter, or to no charge.

S. Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County, said it could be "a while" before all the necessary witnesses are interviewed and documents are gathered to be presented to a grand jury.

Baltimore police have said that Beckwith had a permit for his gun and would probably not face criminal charges. Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said that prosecutors have not decided whether to charge Beckwith, present the case to a grand jury or rule the shooting a justified use of deadly force.

Both jurisdictions have seen high-profile cases in recent years of people claiming self-defense after the use of deadly force.

In April 2001, a Baltimore County grand jury declined to indict Dominic "Tony" Geckle and Matthew Geckle, brothers in the shooting of three unarmed intruders at the Geckles' concrete plant.

The brothers had armed themselves with shotguns and were spending the night in their warehouse after break-ins the two previous nights. One intruder was killed and two others were shot in the back.

Two years later, in January 2003, a Baltimore judge acquitted Harford County businessmen Kenny Der and Darrell R. Kifer of charges in the shooting of a drug addict who broke into their warehouse - and who, according to the defense, brandished a hammer and threatened to kill the men.

Under Maryland law, a person may use deadly force to defend himself if he believes his life is in imminent danger, if that belief is reasonable and if he uses no more force than is "reasonably necessary." Legal experts said those issues will be at play in the cases of Foxx and Beckwith.

Baltimore County police said that Foxx, 35, called 911 last Saturday afternoon to report that she had just shot her estranged husband, 45-year-old Herman E. Bullock, in her Randallstown home - a two-story, end-of-row condominium to which officers had been dispatched numerous times on domestic calls.

Foxx, an office secretary, told officers that her husband threatened her with an ax handle, police spokesman Bill Toohey said.

Foxx shot him in the torso with a handgun, Toohey said. He said police did not know how many bullets struck Bullock.

Foxx successfully sought a court order in November to keep Bullock from contacting her or coming to the house they had shared until June 2005. In requests for protective orders, she wrote that Bullock had threatened to kill her, slapped her, dragged her down the stairs, threatened her with an ax handle and kicked, punched, pushed and choked her.

Foxx also wrote that Bullock had killed their Chihuahua by throwing the dog out the door, breaking its neck.

She filed criminal charges against Bullock in April 2003, telling police that he had scratched her, torn her shirt and punched her during an argument over her late work hours, court records show. Bullock was acquitted of second-degree assault in 2004.

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