A Texas man was convicted of murder last week in a case that has been portrayed as a defeat for "stand your ground" laws.
The case in Houston, however, stands as a poor companion to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. In Texas, the key issue really had nothing to do with anyone standing his ground. It was about two neighbors behaving stupidly--one while possessing a gun, the other while apparently having had too much to drink.
As a result, Kelly Danaher, a married father of one, is dead, and 44-year-old Raul Rodriguez faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
Stories such as this have special resonance here. Mrs. Schnauzer and I have endured a 12-year legal nightmare that started because of a troublesome neighbor named Mike McGarity, a guy with a lengthy criminal record. Anyone who must deal with a thoughtless individual living nearby has my deepest empathy. But both neighbors in the Texas story acted like blockheads, and when a gun and alcohol are added to the equation, we should not be surprised that tragedy ensued.
It unfolded as Danaher, an elementary-school PE teacher, was hosting a joint birthday party for his wife and 3-year-old daughter. The party apparently involved loud music and plenty of alcohol, causing alarm for Rodriguez, who lived two doors down. Rodriguez called local law enforcement with a noise complaint about midnight. According to The Houston Chronicle, this is what happened next:
Because he was disturbed by the noise of the party, Rodriguez walked to the home and stood on the road in front of the Danahers' driveway after midnight. He carried a video camera, a phone and a pistol. To get the attention of people in the house, which is in a rural neighborhood in northeast Harris County, Rodriguez shined a flashlight toward partygoers. On the video, which jurors have seen, Kelly Danaher approached Rodriguez, who told him to "stay back" and then drew his pistol.
The presence of a gun, however, did not help defuse the situation. It only escalated the tension:
A crowd of partygoers gathered as Rodriguez holstered his pistol and called the police. He can be heard telling a police dispatcher that he is in fear for his life and believes someone in the group has left to get a gun. After a few minutes, three of the men "charged" Rodriguez, according to his lawyers. On the video, a maniacal laugh can be heard, the camera drops and the image goes to black.
The video, which can be viewed at the end of this post, provides extraordinary insight into how a neighborhood dispute can turn ugly. Rodriguez is heard asking Danaher and his guests to "keep it down"--and they respond by sassing him, with threats and curses.
I know what it's like to get that kind of response when you make a reasonable request of a neighbor. But that's not to say Rodriquez handled this situation well. In fact, the video shows that almost everyone within view of the camera lens made stupid decisions. Here are a few that jump out at me:
* Why did Danaher allow a party to get so loud and rowdy that late at night in a residential neighborhood? It appears to me that Danaher wanted to "have his cake and eat it, too." He wanted to be married and have a child and take on the trappings of adulthood, but he didn't want to leave his frat-boy ways behind. Some press reports have portrayed Rodriguez as judgmental and overly sensitive, prone to bully his neighbors. But it appears in this instance he did not complain until almost midnight, which is at or past the typical bedtime for many adults. And Rodriguez would not be alone in finding loud music and boisterous behavior to be annoying at that hour.
* Why did law enforcement fail to take control of the situation? After Rodriguez called authorities, a Harris County constable visited the Danaher house and informed residents of the noise complaint. The constable found that Danaher was in compliance with local law and left the house, according to an incident report. How stupid is that? Did it occur to the constable that the party calmed down as a squad car pulled up? Did it occur to him that the party would crank back up when he drove away? Did he think to tell Danaher, "You know, things are pretty quiet right now, and you seem to be within the law, but it is about midnight, and if someone several doors down is complaining, you must have been pretty loud at some point. Looks like you've had quite a party, so why don't you and your friends call it a night? Wouldn't that be the neighborly and thoughtful thing to do?"
* Why did the constable apparently not confer with Rodriquez after the visit to the Danaher home? Was Rodriquez left to think that no one was going to do anything about the noise? Why didn't the constable hang around in the area for a while to make sure the situation had calmed down?
* As for Rodriguez, why did he take a video camera and a gun with him to stand in the street outside the Danaher home? And why did he make a point of flashing both so that people who clearly had been drinking could see them? When someone, apparently Danaher, indicated that he was going to go inside and make sure that he also was armed, why didn't Rodriguez say to himself, "These people are snockered and dangerous. There's no reason to have a possible shootout over this?"
* Did Texas law make Rodriquez bolder than he should have been? Rodriguez can be heard on the video saying, "I'm standing my ground." But he's on a public street; it's not "his ground" to defend. No one is threatening "his ground," which is two doors down. There is a big difference between being threatened and being annoyed. Rodriquez was the latter, but he acted as if it was the former.
I know from personal experience that law enforcement often is utterly inept at handling neighbor issues. They only served to make our situation worse, and that also appears to have happened in Texas.
Rodriguez' attorneys argued that he acted in self defense and was free, under Texas law, to "stand his ground." But a jury disagreed, and I can understand their point.
This was not a situation where Rodriquez had any reason to believe someone was about to threaten him in his home or on his property. And he did not feel a threat as he just happened to be walking down the street. He went to confront people about a problem, which he was entitled to do, but he made the problem worse by introducing a gun and a camera into the equation and refusing to leave when it became clear his tactics were only making matters worse.
I'm not sure that Rodriguez' actions fit the definition of murder. I see no reason to believe he went to Danaher's house with the intention of killing someone. He remained on the street, and gunfire only came when one or more people apparently rushed him.
Texas has no statute for "criminal stupidity," but that's probably what Rodriquez should have been charged with. Barring that, some form of manslaughter might have been appropriate. It's hard to see how a murder conviction is going to hold up on appeal.
But it seems clear that a jury wanted to hold Rodriguez accountable in some way for a death that never should have happened.