Published November 20, 2014
When music at a neighbor's evening party got too loud for his liking, Raul Rodriguez showed up to complain, carrying a gun and a video camera.
As a verbal confrontation unfolded, the retired Houston-area firefighter told a police dispatcher by phone that he feared for his life and was "standing his ground," a reference that calls to mind the law at the center of the Trayvon Martin slaying in Florida in February.
The incident involving Rodriguez happened two years before Martin's death and will be decided under a different kind of self-defense doctrine. But it offers another example of how laws governing deadly force are tested in the nation's courtrooms and the many complex legal issues that swirl around each case.
Prosecutors call Rodriguez an aggressor who could have safely left his neighbor's driveway anytime. His defense attorneys insist Texas law still gave him the right to defend himself, even if it meant taking a life.
In a 22-minute video that he recorded that night, Rodriguez can be heard talking to a police dispatcher after walking over to the home of Kelly Danaher to complain about the noise. Both men lived in Huffman, an unincorporated area about 30 miles northeast of Houston.
Rodriguez told the dispatcher he feared for his life. He can also be heard telling Danaher and two other men to keep the noise down. One of the men, who had apparently seen Rodriguez's gun, cursed at Rodriguez and suggested that he was going to go inside Danaher's home and retrieve his own weapon.
"Look, I will defend myself, sir. ... It's about to get out of hand, sir. Please help me. Please help me, sir. My life is in danger now," Rodriguez can be heard saying on the recording, which was played for jurors this week. The images are mostly dark or in shadow.
"I'm standing my ground here. Now these people are going to go try and kill me."
Rodriguez, 47, eventually tells the dispatcher, "Look I'm not losing to these people anymore." A loud cackling laugh is then heard before someone appears to reach for the camera and a gun goes off. That's when the video abruptly ends.
Danaher, 36, who taught physical education at an elementary school, was killed. The two other men were wounded.
One of the wounded men, a Houston firefighter named Ricky Johnson, told jurors Friday that he and his friends were not at fault, saying Rodriguez "started the process by coming with a gun."
Prosecutor Kelli Johnson has portrayed Rodriguez, who fought fires in the Houston suburb of Baytown, as the one who was looking for a fight.
Kenneth Ellis, who lived across the street from Rodriguez, testified Friday that on the night of the shooting, he saw that Rodriguez was "agitated and angry." As he left his home, he was saying "Shut up. Shut up."
Johnson attempted to introduce evidence showing that Rodriguez had a history of threatening neighbors by brandishing his gun. But state District Judge David Mendoza did not allow the evidence.
One of Rodriguez's attorneys, William Stradley, tried to demonstrate that his client was in fear for his life when one of the men lunged at him, and he had less than a second to respond.
The defense sought to put the burden on the three other men, saying they caused the confrontation to escalate.
"Do you take any responsibility for what happened," Stradley asked Johnson.
"Of course I do," replied Johnson, who on the video can be seen being restrained by the two other men before the shooting.
Texas' version of a stand-your-ground law, known as the Castle Doctrine, was revised in 2007 to expand the right to use deadly force. The new version allows people to defend themselves not only in their homes but also in workplaces or vehicles. It also says a person using force cannot provoke the attacker or be involved in criminal activity at the time.
While Rodriguez was not in his own home or vehicle or business when the shooting happened, Houston criminal defense attorney Grant Scheiner said he believes the law still applies because the 2007 revision gave people wider latitude on when they can use deadly force. Rodriguez had a concealed handgun permit.
"We are not questioning his wisdom," Scheiner said. "We are questioning whether he followed the restriction of the law."
Scheiner believes prosecutors will have a hard time overcoming the precedent of a 2007 case involving another Houston-area resident, Joe Horn, who was not charged by a grand jury for fatally shooting two men he suspected of burglarizing a neighbor's home.
"Joe Horn didn't get indicted. It's going to be hard to convict somebody in these circumstances," he said.
But Jimmy Ardoin, another Houston criminal defense lawyer, believes Rodriguez's lawyers have the tougher challenge — convincing jurors that his actions fit any of the exceptions for deadly force under Texas law.
"I'm not sure that if the jury believes he initiated the confrontation, he will get the protection of self-defense laws," he said.
Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said stand-your-ground laws are encouraging more people to take matters into their own hands instead of waiting for authorities.
"I guess under the law, we've made a decision that people can go out and do this," she said. "Do we really want to encourage people to use force in this manner in these kinds of situations or do we want to encourage them to call the police?"
Scheiner acknowledged there are examples where the use of deadly force goes too far. But he doesn't think that will prompt lawmakers to revise or pull back stand-your-ground laws.
"The clear trend in American law is to expand the rights of people to protect themselves by using deadly force," he said.