HOUSTON — A retired Houston-area firefighter faces up to life in prison after a jury convicted him of murder for gunning down his unarmed neighbor during a dispute over a noisy house party.
Raul Rodriguez, 47, argued he was within his rights under Texas' version of a stand-your-ground law when he killed Kelly Danaher in 2010. The trial's punishment phase, which will include further testimony, was scheduled to begin Thursday.
Rodriguez was angry about the noise coming from Danaher's home, where the family was having a birthday party for Danaher's wife and young daughter. Rodriguez went to the home and got into an argument with Danaher, a 36-year-old elementary school teacher, and two other men who were at the party.
In a 22-minute video he recorded the night of the shooting, Rodriguez can be heard telling a police dispatcher "my life is in danger now" and "these people are going to go try and kill me." He then said "I'm standing my ground here," and shot Danaher after somebody appeared to grab his camera. The two other men were wounded.
Rodriguez's reference to standing his ground is similar to the claim made by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who is citing Florida's stand-your-ground law in his defense in the fatal February shooting of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. Rodriguez's case, however, was decided under a different kind of self-defense doctrine.
Danaher's wife, Mindy, said she cried tears of joy and sadness after the verdict was read.
"I'm just glad that he can't hurt anybody else. That's my main thing," she said outside the courtroom. "I love my husband and I miss him so much."
Rodriguez's attorneys left the courtroom without speaking to reporters. His family, who sobbed after hearing the verdict, declined to comment. His attorneys did not present any witnesses in his defense.
Jurors deliberated for about five hours after having received the case following closing arguments earlier Wednesday.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Kelli Johnson said Rodriguez started the confrontation when instead of calmly asking Danaher to turn down the music he armed himself with a handgun and a camera and proceeded to harass people at the party.
Johnson said Rodriguez lured and provoked Danaher and two other men to come out onto the street and threatened them by brandishing his gun. Rodriguez did have a concealed handgun license. She said Danaher and the two other men were unarmed and that Rodriguez's life was never in any danger. Danaher's widow had told jurors her husband was not a confrontational person.
"This is not what stand your ground is," Johnson said. "Stand your ground is something the law takes very seriously. The law makes it very clear" when the law can be used.
Texas' version of the law, which is known as the Castle Doctrine, was revised in 2007 to expand the right to use deadly force. It allows people to defend themselves not only in their homes but also in their workplaces or vehicles. Legal experts say the expansion also gave people wider latitude on the use of deadly force.
The law also says a person using force can't provoke the attacker or be involved in criminal activity at the time.
Johnson said Rodriguez can't hide behind the stand-your-ground law because he provoked the confrontation and then brandished his weapon against an unarmed individual, which is a crime.
But defense attorney Neal Davis said he doesn't believe Rodriguez did anything illegal. He said Rodriguez went to complain and was confronted by Danaher and the two other partygoers, and that he didn't pull out his gun until he was standing in the street and Danaher approached him in a threatening manner.
"He had a right to be (in) the street. He was not provoking anybody. He was not engaged in any criminal activity. The (stand-your-ground) law is not only for home invasions. That's why the law was changed," Davis said.
An acquittal of Rodriguez would not "say everyone in the city of Houston is going to turn into the Wild, Wild West," Davis said.
Johnson told jurors prosecutors don't have any problems with guns in Texas.
"But with that comes a lot of responsibility. It has to be used as a last resort," she said.
Grant Scheiner, a Houston criminal defense attorney who was not involved in the case but who followed it, said a conviction in a case like Rodriguez's might prompt some clarification of Texas' stand-your-ground law that would more clearly define what it means to provoke someone. But he said he didn't foresee major changes in the law.