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TX Self-Defense Claim Revived After Trial Error

HOUSTON (CN) - Because jury-charge errors obliterated a man's self-defense claim, a Texas appeals court found that he deserves a new trial for killing his neighbor.

Raul Rodriquez shot his neighbor, Kelly Danaher, after an argument over noise during a party at Danaher's house in rural Harris County on May 2, 2010.

Rodriquez recorded the argument with a video camera while on the phone with police, repeatedly telling the dispatcher on the phone he was "afraid for his life." Rodriquez had already pulled a gun and shown it to the partygoers.

"I'm not going to lose to these people any more," Rodriquez said, in the recording, as the argument around him intensified. Several partygoers yelled at him and threatened him. "I'm just gonna tell them to stay back. They're drunk. They're swearing."

Partygoer Ricky Johnson ran at Rodriquez, waving his arms in the air and yelling "Ha ha ha." Danaher, according to testimony from other partygoers, followed close behind Johnson to stop him.

Rodriquez shot Danaher, who died at the scene.

Pete Fornols, who lived between Rodriquez and Danaher, testified at trial that Rodriquez had complained about noise from Danaher's house before and did not like Danaher.

"I wouldn't loan that son of a bitch the sweat off my balls if he was dying of thirst," Fornols said Rodriquez had told him.

"He's one of the son of a bitches that keep us awake at night with loud music."

The night of the shooting, Rodriquez went to Fornol's house to complain to him about the noise from the party. Rodriquez had two pistols, one tucked in the front of his pants and one in the back.

Both were in plain sight.

Rodriquez had a concealed handgun license, and allegedly encouraged another neighbor, Terry Hackathorn, to get one. She said Rodriquez told her, two months before the shooting, that if someone were bothering her she could shoot them and claim self-defense by telling the authorities she was afraid for her life.

Though Rodriquez had argued at trial that he shot Danaher in self-defense, a jury convicted him of murder and sentenced him to 40 years.

On appeal, Rodriquez said the jury charge obstructed his self-defense claim because it asked the jury to consider if he had kept his weapons concealed when he visited Fornol and during the argument with the partygoers.

The charge was based on a Texas law that forbids a person with a concealed-handgun license from keeping his weapon hidden or carrying it while intoxicated.

A three-judge panel for the First District Texas Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on Dec. 18.

The confusing jury instruction could have led the jury to believe it should ignore Rodriquez's self-defense claim simply because he drew his gun during the argument, the court found.

"Under the trial court's charge, that bare fact was sufficient to abrogate Rodriquez's self-defense claim, regardless of whether the jury believed Rodriquez was justified in using deadly force," Justice Rebeca Huddle wrote for the court.

Though prosecutors agreed that it was wrong to include the charge, they argued that the charge actually benefited Rodriquez by forcing the state to prove he was both intoxicated and not properly concealing his weapon.

Huddle agreed that this was a likely interpretation of the charge, but that whether the jury read it this way is uncertain.

The evidence at trial was also conflicting, the court found, citing testimony from partygoers that those arguing with Rodriquez had kept a wide distance.

Rodriquez's conversation with Hawthorn in which he told her she could shoot someone and get away with it by claiming self-defense also lent itself to the state's argument that Rodriquez had "manufactured his self-defense claim," according to the ruling.

There was evidence that Danaher could have been as close as 18 inches when Rodriquez shot him. Rodriquez also suffered a broken leg from the encounter.

"Given the conflicting evidence," Huddle wrote, "we conclude the conviction was not a foregone conclusion absent the charge order."

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