Self-defense can be a close call

Using deadly force in such cases seldom results in conviction

April 01, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

In March 2001, two brothers frustrated over repeated break-ins at their concrete plant in Glyndon armed themselves with shotguns and spent the night in the darkened building. When three intruders broke in, the brothers opened fire, killing one and wounding two others in the back.

Dominic "Tony" Geckle and Matthew Geckle told Baltimore County police that they thought the flashlights the men were carrying were guns.

The case raised questions about whether the brothers had exercised justifiable self-defense or had crossed the line into vigilante justice by lying in wait for their prey. A Baltimore County grand jury refused to indict them.

Cases in which homeowners and business owners use deadly force to defend their lives and their property are never easy, though a look back at 10 cases that made the news and sparked debate in the Baltimore area show that even when prosecutors find a shooting is unjustified, convictions are rare (see the complete list on the Crime Beat blog on The Baltimore Sun's Web site).

The most recent case came early Sunday, when William Bozman told police he woke up in his Perry Hall home to find an intruder pointing a gun at his face. Bozman got to his own gun and killed the man, who turned out to have been a convicted attempted murderer who, years earlier, had opened fire on two Baltimore police officers.

Baltimore County police have said Bozman's statement to detectives matches evidence at the scene, and for now, at least, they believe the shooting was justified. Prosecutors have not reviewed it. This case appears more clear-cut than most, but each shooting raises new issues. The Johns Hopkins student who killed an intruder with a samurai sword last year was criticized for grabbing the weapon and looking for a prowler after police had come to his door to warn him a suspicious man had been seen. The student told authorities he was cornered against a garage door when he saw the man and swung the weapon.

Baltimore prosecutors cleared the student. But three months later, two men who took an Uzi-style machine gun from a man who had shot their friend and beat him with it were charged with attempted murder. In that case, Baltimore prosecutors said, the men carried the beating too far. Attorneys for the pair cited the case of the Hopkins student and complained of a double standard; a jury trial has been scheduled.

Twice in the 1990s, elderly men shot teenagers for vandalizing their cars. The public spoke of out-of-control teens and sided with the gunmen.

"Some of the people I've been talking to, especially the elderly, are sorry the young man got killed," one older homeowner said at that time. "But they're not sorry the man shot him."

It's about as close as some of these cases come to vigilantism. One of the men was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison (Gov. Parris N. Glendening commuted the sentence after 14 months). The other was found incompetent to stand trial.

In August last year, the boyfriend of a clerk at a Fells Point vintage clothing store beat a suspected burglar over the head with a baseball bat.

The man had returned to rob the store for the third time and the clerks had had enough. The man fled the beating but was quickly caught by police. Had he not, another store owner on Broadway had armed himself with a bat, knife and ax.

It's still rare for one person to kill another in an attack in a case of self-defense, but Sung Kim did it twice in two years - in 1995 and 1997 - when armed men tried to rob his Northeast Baltimore liquor store. Both shootings were ruled justified.

Not everyone agrees on how these cases should be handled, and there are no easy answers or blanket rules to cover every scenario. While a grand jury didn't indict the Geckle brothers in the Baltimore County shooting, that same year in Baltimore City, prosecutors pressed first-degree murder charges against two businessmen who killed a drug addict who had broken into their warehouse in East Baltimore.

Like the Geckles, Kenny Der and Darrell R. Kifer had endured previous break-ins, and they, too, lay in wait to see if the burglar would return. And just as in the Geckle case, someone did come back, unarmed, and was shot and killed.

Two years later, a city judge acquitted both men of all charges.

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