In a Valley Independent article entitled “Homicide charge shocker,” writer Jeff Pikulsky provides what I find to be a shockingly sensationalist, biased, and legally deficient report about a self defense shooting case. A summary of the facts, some background on the basic principles of law at issue, and my responses to that anti self defense article are below:
The self defense shooting
According to police, 25 year old James MacFarlane and 25 year old William Eyles conspired to rob Joseph Gallic at his Monongahela, PA home by luring him outside then attacking him. MacFarlane allegedly went to Gallick’s home at about 2:50 a.m. to lure him out of the house by coming to the door and falsely saying that someone was burglarizing his vehicle. Police say Gallick grabbed his self defense gun and stepped outside to investigate, at which point Eyles, who was waiting in ambush, hit Gallick over the head with a baseball bat. Gallick fired two shots in self defense, fatally wounding Eyles and saving himself from that life threating attack. MacFarlane is said to have fled the scene, and Gallick was treated at a local hospital for his injuries. When police interviewed MacFarlane, he allegedly confessed to the conspiracy to lure Gallick from his home, attack him, and rob him.
The charges against MacFarlane
MacFarlane reportedly faces one count of criminal homicide, one count of criminal attempt, two counts of criminal conspiracy, and one summary charge of criminal mischief. The criminal complaint reportedly states that the homicide charge was filed because MacFarlane “did conspire to commit a robbery, and assault with another, during which time a co-conspirator was shot and killed by the victim of the robbery.” No charges were filed against Gallick for his self defense actions.
Why the charges against MacFarlane are reasonable
MacFarlane was charged with homicide in the death of his alleged co-conspirator because of the felony murder rule. Simply put, this longstanding rule of law makes any participant in a dangerous felony criminally liable for any deaths that occur during or in furtherance of that felony. This rule rightfully imposes liability upon criminals who choose to commit a dangerous crime that ends up resulting in a death, since those criminals knew that their crime could result in a death, yet chose to commit it anyway. The felony murder rule ensures that the criminals who plan out and execute a crime that leads to a death are held accountable.
Some states, including PA, apply the felony murder rule against one co-conspirator when another co-conspirator is killed in self defense by the crime victim. I find myself in complete agreement with this longstanding rule of law. When two or more criminals set out to commit a crime, they both understand that their victim may kill one of them in self defense. When one of the co-conspirators is killed in self defense, the fact that the dead criminal appreciated this risk shouldn’t relieve the surviving criminal of liability, since to do so would run contrary to some of the most basic principles of law as well as common sense. For example, it is well settled that dueling is illegal, and the victor in a dueling match cannot escape liability for the death of the other dueling participant by claiming that the other participant agreed to take the risk of being fatally shot. Nor can those involved in street racing escape liability for the other racer’s death by claiming that they both undertook the risk of street racing. Getting back to the felony murder rule, as a matter of policy, the rule also makes sense: It ensures that the most culpable party (a criminal) is held liable when a death takes place during a felony, and provides an additional deterrent effect against criminals who are considering committing a violent crime.
My responses to Jeff Pikulsky’s anti self defense article
Below I quote and respond to what I find to be some of the more sensationalist, biased, and legally deficient aspects of Mr. Pikulsky’s anti self defense newspaper article.
Leaving the courtroom Friday, Paul and Laurie MacFarlane were shocked that their son had been charged with homicide in the shooting death of his friend.
The the sensationalism and bias begins in the first sentence of the article. Mr. MacFarlane was charged with being part of a conspiracy to ambush, violently attack, and rob another man. Referring to self defense shooting death of his alleged co-conspirator as “the death of his friend” portrays MacFarlane as a victim who lost his friend, rather than an alleged violent criminal whose alleged accomplice was shot in self defense by the victim of that crime.
MacFarlane’s parents argued that their son is being wrongfully charged [and reportedly stated that] “They’re making it look like Cole [MacFarlane] pulled the trigger, and he got shot at,” Paul MacFarlane said. “He’s lucky he’s still alive. He was completely unarmed. He didn’t hurt anybody.”
Here, Pikulsky quotes MacFarlane’s parents. While there is nothing inherently wrong with quoting the parents of the accused, providing those individuals with a means of broadcasting their factually and legally inaccurate statements, without any rebuttal or clarification, strikes me as unreasonable. Most people aren’t lawyers, and don’t understand the felony murder rule, making it likely that they will take as truth the ever-so-inaccurate statements that are quoted. I certainly believe in free speech, but at the same time I believe that newspaper journalists should take it upon themselves to provide as unbiased and objective reports as possible, given their important role in our society. Effectively turning the newspaper into a publicity agency for the accused strikes me as a breach of that duty.
Moving on to the substance of MacFarlane’s parents’ statements, the law clearly does not require that MacFarlane pull a trigger to be liable for the crime. In fact, the whole purpose of the felony murder rule is to impose liability upon a person other then one that actually pulled the trigger, for the reasons discussed above. Note that the imposition of liability upon a person other than the one who complete the overt act is a longstanding principle of law that extends through our legal system. For example, the getaway driver in a robbery is just as liable as the robbers who enter the bank. Similarly, the lookout for the arsonist is just as liable as the person who sets the fire. The rational is that a criminal who serves as lookout or getaway driver is furthering the crime. Indeed, in cases where one criminal lures another into an ambush, that criminal who performed the luring made the entire crime possible in the first place. In such situations, the legal system properly imposes liability upon that criminal, who is just as at fault as the person who completed the ambush.
The MacFarlanes said they do not know if Gallick will be charged. “They said the investigation is ongoing,” Laurie MacFarlane said of police. “They’re not saying a whole lot. “I just want to make sure things are fair here. This guy [the victim who fired in self defense] is just walking away, and he needs to know that you just don’t shoot people.”
These statements defy all credulity, and I’m amazed that a newspaper would quote them. Simply put, Mrs. MacFarlane’s statements do not reflect the law. Here we have a man who was in his home late at night when a pair of men allegedly conspired to rob him, lured him from his home, waited in ambush, and attacked him with a deadly weapon. That is about as clear a case of self defense as I can imagine. Based upon the reported facts, Gallick was entirely within his rights to defend himself with deadly force, and shouldn’t be charged with any crime. Instead, it seems as though he should receive a commendation and a parade, for successfully defending himself and at the same time also making the community a bit safer.
“He was my friend too,” Paul MacFarlane said. “I don’t think he should have been killed. I’ve had altercations with people in the street, and I’ve never had to shoot them.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an “altercation” is “a noisy heated angry dispute.” It conjures to mind a situation where two or more people engage in generally mutual exchange of words or possibly blows. It most certainly does not include a situation where one person is lured out of their home in middle of the night and hit over the head with a baseball bat, by a person who was waiting in ambush. That situation is an unprovoked deadly threat to the victim’s life, and as discussed above, that victim is legally and morally entitled to use deadly force to stop that attack.
[Paul MacFarlane is further quoted as saying] “Whatever happened to shooting someone in the leg? You get away with anything down here.”
Shooting to wound is almost never appropriate. Those who are not knowledgeable about guns and human anatomy will suggest that a citizen shoot a criminal in the leg, rather than aiming for the criminal’s chest, so as to avoid killing the criminal – even when the citizen’s life is threatened. That is bad advice. The only way to reliably stop a violent human right away is to disrupt the brain, spine, heart, or certain other vital organs. Even severe bullet wounds to the lung(s) generally won’t stop an attacker right away, as there is enough oxygen in the blood stream that they can keep up their attack for about 30 seconds. The law strongly disfavors shooting to wound, and it as often seen as evidence that the citizen was not in reasonable fear of suffering death or grievous bodily harm. Finally, I would note that and any gunshot can be fatal, so it is not possible to truly shoot only to wound.
Even if, just for the sake of argument, shooting to wound were a viable option, it is just not reasonable to expect a crime victim facing a deadly threat to try and aim for the leg. A leg is a smaller target, which is more difficult to hit than an attacker’s chest. When the crime victim has adrenaline rushing their body, and they are facing a deadly threat for what may be the first time in their life, one cannot reasonably expect that crime victim to engage in such a marksmanship contest. This is even more true when the crime victim in question has just suffered a blow to the head from a baseball bat, and is likely disoriented as a result. It is simply unreasonable to value the life and safety of a violent attacker over their victim, by insisting that victim further risk their own life by trying to avoid harming the attacker when acting in self defense.
Regarding Paul MacFarlane’s statement that the crime victim is “getting away” with shooting his baseball bat wielding attacker, I am yet again amazed that a newspaper would print this gross misstatement without at least providing some sort of rebuttal. As I’ve discussed at length above, each of us has the legal, moral, and basic human right to defend ourselves against the sort of unprovoked attack that Mr. Gallick suffered. Mr. Gallick is the true victim here – not the violent criminal he shot in self defense, nor the alleged accomplice who lured Gallick from his home so that the bat wielding attacker could strike.
Note: Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice. Legal principles, such as the felony murder rule, are discussed for informational purposes only. Anyone in need of legal advice is urged to contact an attorney in their area.