A Tale of Two Shootings: False Belief Is a Defense, as Long as You’re a Cop

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In the three-and-a-half months since Trayvon Martin was killed, Houston courts have heard two cases involving the shooting of unarmed civilians and decided them very differently.

Last night, a Harris County jury found Raul Rodriguez guilty of murder for shooting his neighbor in 2010 over a noisy party. Kelly Danaher, a 36-year-old elementary school teacher, was having a birthday party for his wife and young daughter. Angry about the noise, Rodriguez armed himself with a handgun and video camera and recorded himself telling a police dispatcher, “my life is in danger now,” “these people are going to try and kill me,” and “I’m standing my ground here.” Rodriguez fatally shot Danaher in the street after someone tried to grab his video camera.

Dateline Houston wishes this were a depressing postmodern play about the dangerous, aggrandizing fantasies engendered by constant self-documentation in the social media age—but it’s not. It’s a real news story about a retired firefighter with a concealed carry permit and the Stand Your Ground law that made him think that saying aloud that he believed his life was in danger would protect him from all consequences.

The problem is, Rodriguez wasn’t a cop.

In April, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against two Houston-area cops who shot an unarmed black man, Robbie Tolan, in his driveway in 2008.

Here’s what happened—and please note, these events are not disputed; the issue at stake in the lawsuit was whether these events violated Tolan’s constitutional rights.

Tolan and his cousin were driving home in the wee hours of December 31. Officer John C. Edwards (who is white) was on patrol in the Bellaire neighborhood and ran Cooper’s plates—you know, just because. The plates came back as stolen—because Edwards had entered the plate number wrong.

Edwards called for back-up and confronted Tolan and his cousin on the front lawn, ordering them to the ground. Tolan’s parents heard the commotion and came outside in their pajamas, trying to explain that Tolan lived there and the car was theirs. One of the officers pushed Tolan’s mother toward the garage door and Tolan started to get up, objecting. Sgt. Jeffrey Wayne Cotton, who had been on the scene for 32 seconds, shot Tolan. Per the Chronicle: “Cotton said he thought Tolan was reaching for a gun in his waistband.”

Cotton was charged with first-degree aggravated assault by a public servant and found not guilty at trial in 2010. Naturally. Then the Toban family sued. They lost.

“Sergeant Cotton misinterpreted Robbie Tolan’s intended actions,” the judge wrote, “but his firing on Robbie Tolan did not violate Robbie Tolan’s constitutional rights because Sergeant Cotton feared for his life and could reasonably have believed the shooting was necessary.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.