Killing of burglars spurs legal debate

Texan shot pair after break-in next door

November 26, 2007|By Miguel Bustillo | Miguel Bustillo,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PASADENA, Texas -- When he saw two men using a crowbar to enter his neighbor's house this month, Joe Horn did what many people would do: He called 911.

But when police had not shown up by the time the men were about to leave, the 61-year-old retiree did something most people probably would not: He put down the phone, stepped outside with his shotgun and killed them.

"I'm not going to let them get away with this," Horn told the 911 dispatcher, who responded: "Property's not worth killing someone over."

Seconds later, the sound of a gun being loaded was captured on the 911 tape, followed by the warning: "Move [and] you're dead" and then three bursts of gunfire. Miguel DeJesus, 38, and Diego Ortiz, 30, died from their wounds. Both had histories of committing small-time crimes.

The recording of Horn's anger, frustration and willingness to take the law into his own hands has made him the focus of a national dispute. Critics condemn him as a vigilante bent on meting out murderous justice. Admirers praise him as a courageous hero whom any law abider would love to have next door.

"Why is he still a free man?" Linda E. Edwards wrote in a letter to The Houston Chronicle.

"Joe Horn gets a Texas `attaboy' from me," countered John E. Meagher in the next letter on the page, adding: "Justice was served, law or not."

As the debate rages on talk radio and cable news shows, Horn remains free. However, according to his attorney, he is so overwrought with grief and overwhelmed by the glare of publicity that he has left his home in this blue-collar Houston suburb.

"Joe has never been anything but a gentle person. He's not the type of monster that they are making him out to be," attorney Tom Lambright said in an interview with Houston radio host Michael Berry.

Lambright did not return requests for comment.

Authorities are investigating what happened Nov. 14, but they plan to let a Harris County grand jury decide whether Horn, a former computer consultant, should be indicted for any crimes.

"This is not an individual who stepped outside and gunned down two pedestrians on the sidewalk," said Pasadena police Capt. A.H. "Bud" Corbett. "In a situation where there is some uncertainty about which side of the law someone was on, the best thing to do is assemble all the information and present it to the grand jury."

Noting Texans' prevailing populist views on guns and self-defense - and the sharply mixed reaction to what Horn did - legal experts differ over whether a jury of his peers would ever indict him. They also differ on whether one should, given a Texas law known as the "castle doctrine" that permits citizens to use deadly force to defend their homes and cars.

Tommy LaFon, a Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor who has argued about 50 disputed shooting cases before grand juries, said Horn's lawyers may be able to claim that his actions were legal because he was acting as the de facto defender of his neighbor's property.

"If a jury believes he was standing in the shoes of the owner, that might affect their decision," LaFon said.

Critics of the way the case has been handled say the 911 tape is proof that Horn had determined to shoot the robbers before stepping outside with his gun.

Noting that Horn is white and the suspects were dark-skinned, Quanell X, a Houston activist, accused authorities of bias. Horn should be charged with murder, he said.

"Mr. Horn did not have to kill those people," Quanell X said during a protest. "Mr. Horn became judge, jury and executioner."

Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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