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Spokane jury acquits man who shot car theft suspect

Thursday's verdict in a Spokane trial will ignite a new debate over the use of deadly force.
Dave Workman

A Spokane jury Thursday acquitted a local man on manslaughter charges in the March 2013 shooting death of a an alleged car thief who was driving away in his SUV, and later determined that the shooting was justified, so defendant Gail Gerlach could be reimbursed for his trial expenses, according to KHQ News.

If the reaction by readers of the Spokane Spokesman-Review and KHQ viewers is any gauge, a majority of the public believes the right call was made. The dead man, Brendon Kaluza-Graham, was described by his grandmother, Ann Kaluza-Graham, as “a sacrificial lamb,” according to the newspaper account.

The shooting got media attention across the Pacific Northwest and beyond as it raised questions about the use of deadly force to protect private property. Gerlach claimed that Kaluza-Graham appeared to have been aiming a gun in his direction as he drove away from Gerlach’s Spokane home that morning.

Not everyone is happy with the verdict. Some Spokesman-Review readers think Gerlach used excessive force, and according to KREM News in Spokane, the dead man’s family is continuing to speak out, asserting that not all the facts were brought out during the trial, and that the verdict could send the wrong message to the community about using force in property crimes.

Gerlach fired a single shot from his 9mm pistol at Kaluza-Graham, after which the SUV rolled to a stop. He then reportedly went inside, called police and unloaded the gun.

For 13 months the case was part of a broader debate about how far people could or should go in protecting their property. Washington statute on use of force allows deadly force “when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony…” While auto theft is a felony, Gerlach’s claim that he thought Kaluza-Graham was pointing a gun in his direction would have posed the greater threat.

There is no requirement that a person who acts in self-defense must essentially wait for a shot to be fired. When a shot is fired, as appears to be the case in a White Center fatal shooting reported by this column Wednesday, then self-defense becomes clearer, even when the person firing in self-defense is a felon who should not have a firearm in his possession.

Continued debate on the use of force is predictable because of Thursday’s jury verdict. On one side are those who insist that no property, even a home or vehicle, is worth a human life, while on the other side, the argument will always be that people who get hurt or killed while committing any crime have only themselves to blame.


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