HOUSTON (AP) — Retired Texas firefighter Raul Rodriguez, armed with a handgun and video camera, had claimed he was standing his ground and had no choice but to use deadly force when he fatally shot his unarmed neighbor after confronting him about a noisy party.
A jury decided otherwise Wednesday, sentencing Rodriguez to 40 years in prison for killing the neighbor, Kelly Danaher, a 36-year-old elementary school teacher. Prosecutors said they are hopeful the punishment will stop others from settling matters with violence and trying to use Texas' version of a stand-your-ground law as a defense.
"I think it sends a clear message that this was not a case of stand-your-ground," said prosecutor Kelli Johnson. "And I think from his behavior, his intent, the provocation … shows that this had … nothing to do with self-defense."
Rodriguez, who faced up to life in prison for the 2010 killing, will be eligible for parole in 20 years. Jurors deliberated about five hours Wednesday before reaching their verdict. The same jury convicted him of murder on June 13.
His reference to standing his ground was 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.
During closing arguments earlier Wednesday in the trial's punishment phase, Johnson referenced Zimmerman but told jurors that case was different from what Rodriguez was convicted of doing.
Danaher's family members said they wished the jury had sent a stronger message when sentencing Rodriguez.
"Nothing will be enough," Danaher's wife, Mindy, said. "It's not going to bring Kelly back. I just want (Rodriguez) to be in there forever."
Kelly Danaher's mother, Connie, called Rodriguez a "hateful coward."
"Eternal fire and damnation is not enough for what you took from us," she said in court, reading from her victim statement.
The night of the shooting, 46-year-old Rodriguez was angry about the noise coming from a birthday party at his neighbor's home in Huffman, an unincorporated area about 30 miles northeast of Houston. The retired Houston-area firefighter, who had a concealed handgun permit, went over and got into an argument with Danaher and two other men.
In a 22-minute video he recorded that night, 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 fatally shot Danaher and wounded the other two men.
Defense attorney Neal Davis said he was disappointed with the sentence and worried others might be wrongly charged for standing their ground in situations where they fear for their lives.
"When you're out there in a situation where you're truly in fear for your life and you're having to make a split-second decision, sometimes those decisions might not be correct. It doesn't mean you should be charged with murder," Davis said. "But I think that's going to be the trend, that people who stand their ground in public places and who lawfully have a weapon to use deadly force face a very real chance of getting charged with murder."
But Johnson said Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced because he abused Texas law.
"This was not a man that truly knew the law or truly took it seriously," the prosecutor said. "He used it to hide behind it. It was a shield for him, to do what he wanted to do."
Jurors declined to comment about the sentence.
Texas' version of a stand-your-ground law is known as the Castle Doctrine. It was revised in 2007 to expand the right to use deadly force. The new version allows people to defend themselves in their homes, workplaces or vehicles. It also says a person using force cannot provoke the attacker or be involved in criminal activity at the time. Legal experts say the expansion in general gave people wider latitude on the use of deadly force.
Prosecutors called Rodriguez the aggressor and said he could have walked away from the confrontation safely before the shooting. Rodriguez's attorneys argued he was defending himself when one of the men lunged at him and he had less than two seconds to respond.
At trial, prosecutors tried to show Rodriguez had a history of not getting along with Danaher and other neighbors. Rodriguez's ex-wife, neighbors and former co-workers testified during the punishment phase that he was abusive, a bad neighbor and had once shot a dog.
Rodriguez's attorneys did not call any witnesses to the stand before the jury convicted him. But they presented more than a dozen witnesses, including his wife and sons, during the punishment phase. One son said Rodriguez shot the dog because it was threatening his family.
Relatives testified he was not abusive, always stressed gun safety and was not cavalier with his weapons.
Defense attorney William Stradley said Rodriguez "understands that what he's done is difficult and obviously if he could go back and change it he would."