A Marine Corps veteran’s trial — and ultimate acquittal — for shooting an ‘unarmed’ attacker in Champaign, Illinois relied heavily on proving how hesitation can prove fatal for good guys with guns. Indeed, moments before Alva Thomas shot Christina Newman, Newman had threatened to get her gun from her car and settle things right then and there.
It all began with a raucous argument, public intoxication and loud music outside Mr. Thomas’ condo near Parkland College. Thomas made a few mistakes that night, not the least of which was leaving his residence to ask the people out front to move along or at least hold it down.
He also got too close, taking a few steps from his front door almost to the sidewalk to continue to ask them to be quiet after they initially ignored him. Miss Newman showed little in the way of civility and issued a threat to get her gun from her car, at which point she went into the car and began to root around.
The record would later show that Christina Newman had a valid Illinois carry license.
Thomas, medically discharged from the Marine Corps, now walks with a cane. He realized he didn’t have time to safely retreat back to his residence and more or less stood his ground. When Newman came out of the car concealing something behind her back with her hand, he put her at gunpoint.
She reportedly said something to the effect she wasn’t afraid of him and advanced upon him, blading her body and issuing more threats while keeping her hand concealed behind her hip. Thomas fired a round over her shoulder as a warning shot as he was trained to do in the Marines.
Newman laughed and said, “he’s not serious” and continued approaching Thomas. Evidence shows that she had closed to within six to eight feet from him when he fired a second round, this one into her torso to stop her advance. She fell to the ground.
Thomas put the gun away and tried to offer aid to the woman. The police showed up and put Thomas in custody and summoned an ambulance for Miss Newman. They found a 3.5-inch folding “tactical style” knife in her pants approximately where she had been concealing her hand.
She told responding officers that she had not been drinking, but later at the hospital, she changed her tune when the anesthesiologist explained the facts of life to her. Testing would show she had a blood alcohol content over .20, 2.5 times the amount for legal intoxication. Investigators also reportedly found an open bottle of tequila in the car.
Police were reluctant to charge Mr. Thomas, but the local prosecutor wanted a pound of flesh from this law-abiding gun owner. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Reitz charged him with the functional equivalent of attempted murder as well as recklessly discharging a firearm for the warning shot. When Thomas declined a plea bargain, the case was set for trial.
Guns Save Life provided a pair of expert witnesses for the defense. GSL Defense Training instructor attorney Steve Davis, along with retired FBI Special Agent and current GSL Defensive Training instructor Frank Wright each testified at length.
The trial hinged on proving to the jury that hesitation in a defensive situation can equal death for a good guy in Thomas’ circumstances.
“If you wait to see the gun,” Davis told the jury, “you’re probably gonna see what comes out of it.”
Davis explained to the jury how it takes time for a person to observe a stimulus and to react to it. “It takes at least three-quarters of a second for most people,” he said. To come up with that number, Davis relied in part on the work of Dr. Ron Martinelli.
Here’s an excerpt from Martinelli’s “Revisiting the 21 foot rule” from Police Magazine:
When an officer experiences a threat, it takes on average .58 seconds to experience the threat and determine if it is real. It then takes on average .56 to 1.0 seconds to make a response decision. Humans have five possible responses to threat: defend (fight), disengage (retreat), posture (yell, point a finger, act aggressive), become hypervigilant (panic, confusion, freezing, using force excessively), and submit (surrender)….
Perception lag—Once the average officer gets on target, it takes him or her .56 seconds to make a decision to commence shooting. However, it then takes that same officer .25 to .31/100ths of a second per trigger pull to fire. As the deadly force scenario rapidly evolves, it takes that same officer on average .5 to .6 seconds to realize that the threat has passed and to stop shooting. This is because of a psychophysiological dynamic referred to as “perception action-reaction lag time.”
The reason why some suspects are found to have entry wounds in their sides and backs when the officers who shot them say the suspects were facing them when they fired is often the perception action-reaction lag time and the manner in which information was processed by the officers’ brains. This is pretty sophisticated information for a criminal or civil jury to understand and consider.
Consider this. How long does it take for you to draw your handgun and place two center hits on a man-size target at seven yards? Those of us who have learned and practiced proper pistolcraft techniques would say that a time of about one and one-half seconds is acceptable for that drill.
With that in mind, let’s consider what might be called the “Danger Zone” if you are confronted by an adversary armed with an edged or blunt weapon. At what distance does this adversary enter your Danger Zone and become a lethal threat to you?
We have done some testing along those lines recently and have found that an average healthy adult male can cover the traditional seven yard distance in a time of (you guessed it) about one and one-half seconds. It would be safe to say then that an armed attacker at 21 feet is well within your Danger Zone.
In short, a bad guy who’s within 21 feet of his victim can be on him within 1.5 seconds – which is about the amount of time it takes for the good guy to react to the stimulus, access their gun and fire a shot.
From his Marine Corps training, and other learning, Thomas knew that he had a tactical problem. He recognized the woman’s pre-violence indicators.
She told him she was going to get her gun to settle things. She went into the car and then came out concealing something behind her back. Furthermore, she maintained a bladed stance and continued issuing threats.
Even worse, she had closed to within about eight feet of him. He knew that she could close that distance before he could react.
These clues told him that he faced imminent danger of death or great bodily injury and he fired accordingly in defense of his life.
Of course, the prosecutor’s take on it differed greatly.
From the News-Gazette:
[Assistant State’s Attorney Lindsey] Clark argued that Thomas was annoyed and irritated and that he was reacting irrationally to a “mouthy” person.
“Did he reasonably fear imminent death? Was great bodily harm going to come to him right then and there? Not a chance,” she said. “This is not how you act in a townhome near a college. You don’t shoot someone who exchanges words with you.”
No, you don’t shoot someone who exchanges words with you. Unless they’ve just threatened to get their gun and “take care of things.” And then proceeded to do a very credible impression of carrying out that threat, complete with pre-violence indicators.
If Thomas had hesitated, he might have lost control of his gun or gotten shot. Even if Miss Newman came out with a blade instead of a gun, Mr. Thomas could have taken one or more stab wounds before shooting his attacker. After all, at eight feet or less, she could have been on him in about the time it would have taken for him to register an attack.
Keep the lessons here in mind as you seek to avoid finding yourself in the kind of situation Mr. Thomas found himself in that night. After all, while Thomas was acquitted by the jury, he still has memories of that terrible night in the back of his mind, not to mention $50,000 in legal defense bills.
Oh and Ms. Newman has now filed a lawsuit against him seeking in excess of $100,000 in damages for what happened that night.
Lastly, this case serves to show why every gun owner should secure self-defense insurance from one of the better companies that offer it out there. If the worst happens, you won’t have to worry about paying a huge legal bill to hire competent counsel to work toward your acquittal.