TEXAS, July 8, 2013 — Just after 2 a.m. on July 8, 1998, Paul Anders Saustrup killed Eric Demart Smith, a would-be car thief, by shooting him twice in the back. Did he stand his ground, or did he commit murder?
Saustrup and his girlfriend, Sasha Sessums, who are both Concealed Handgun License (CHL) holders, and both white, told the Austin police that they were coming from the Black Cat Lounge, which Seesums owns and manages, when they walked up on Sessums’ Suburban and saw its passenger side window broken out. Then, moments later, Eric Demart Smith, a 20-year-old black man, jumped into the driver’s seat.
Saustrup said he pulled out a .380 handgun and attempted to keep Smith in the vehicle by shouting “Freeze! Anyone else comes jumping out of there; you’ll be the first to die!” He then gave his cellphone to Sessums and told her to call 911.
However, when Smith ignored his threat, exited the vehicle, and briskly walked away, Saustrup pointed his weapon at Smith and followed him. Sessums followed them both, but further back.
Why did Saustrup follow Smith? Hadn’t he stood his ground at the suburban? Smith was gone. The danger had passed.
When Saustrup decided to follow Smith down the streets and alleyways of downtown Austin, didn’t he in effect, become the aggressor?
According to Joe Turner, Saustrup’s attorney, his client never intended to murder Smith. But he “feared for his life”, because while Saustrup was following him, Smith kept saying that he would have his “homeboys” shoot Saustrup, and that he knew where Saustrup lived.
However, Michael Hamilton, a transient who lived in one of the alleys nearby, testified that when he saw the two men “zigzagging” down the street, Smith looked “scared”, and kept looking over his shoulder “like he wanted to run.”
On May 26, 2000, the fifth anniversary of the law that allows Texans to carry concealed weapons, an Austin jury, three hours after first attempting to declare that they were deadlocked, found that Paul Anders Saustrup had acted in self-defense in the death of Eric Demart Smith, and acquitted him of murder.
There is no dispute that Eric Demart Smith was a thief. He damaged, and was found attempting to burglarize Sasha Sessums’ car. But there is also no dispute that he was unarmed, and had not taken anything from the vehicle when Paul Saustrup shot him in the back.
In contrast, on December 6, 2005, John McNeil, a black homeowner who lived in Kennesaw, Georgia, shot and killed Brian Epp, a white construction contractor who had trespassed on his property and threatened his 19-year-old son by pointing a knife at his face.
After McNeil’s son, La’Ron, called him on the phone and told him what had happened, McNeil hurriedly left for home and called 911 on the way.
“I’m about to pull up now. Just get the cops out here,” McNeil said on the 911 recording. “I’m ready to whip his ass right now.” The 911 operator urged McNeil to wait for police, but he told her he wouldn’t.
McNeil testified that when he pulled into the driveway Epp was in the yard between his house and the house next door, but then went to his truck, got something, put it in his pocket, and starting walking toward him “fast.”
McNeil, removed a 9mm Smith and Wesson semi-automatic handgun from his car’s glove compartment, took it out its case, and loaded it with hollow point rounds.
According to McNeil, when Epp walked onto his property he told him to “back up, I’m not playing with you”, but Epp kept coming. McNeil said he fired a warning shot into the dirt to scare Epp, but Epp kept moving toward him, so he shot him.
When McNeil’s version of events was backed up by Bobby Smith, who testified that he was detailing a Ferrari in a driveway across the street from where the shooting occurred, the police did not arrest him.
However, a year later, under pressure from Epp’s wife and others, Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head, presented the Epp shooting to a grand jury; McNeil was later tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison.
McNeil served almost seven years in prison before being offered a plea bargain that released him from prison, but found him guilty of manslaughter, and placed him on thirteen years of probation.
That a Texas jury condoned Saustrup’s actions and a Georgia jury condemned McNeil’s, on the surface, seems racist. It might not be. But cases such as these cause many to question whether race, at least at a basic level, influenced their outcome.
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