Houston Leads in Vigilante Justice

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In 2007, shortly after Texas’s “Stand Your Ground” law passed, Joe Horn of Pasadena saw two men breaking into his neighbor’s empty house. He called 911 and asked the operator, “Do you want me to stop them?”

“Nope, don’t do that,” the dispatcher said. “No property worth shootin’ somebody over, okay?”

But Joe Horn, and Texas law, disagreed.

(For the rest of that story, see Patrick Michels’ piece here.)

Monday’s Houston Chronicle has a grimly fascinating look the circumstances surrounding “justifiable homicides” in Texas, which have risen from 32 in 2006 to 48 in 2010 according to FBI data. (Texas’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which removed the obligation to retreat before shooting, passed in 2007.)

The article notes that more than half of 2010’s justifiable homicides—27—took place in the Houston area, with nine in Dallas and eight in San Antonio. (Austin wasn’t mentioned). Most shootings occurred at night, during a home invasion, with a male shooter with a handgun, and between minorities.

Texas allows for deadly force to protect property and to stop “rape, arson, burglary, theft at night and criminal mischief at night.” (Note to kids: no more TP-ing houses.)

The piece was occasioned by the Trayvon Martin tragedy, of course, but also by Friday’s killing of an alleged beer thief at a Houston convenience store. A 19-year- old clerk shot and killed a 45-year-old man whom he said was leaving without paying for a case of beer. The man’s family told local news stations yesterday that the alleged thief, Troy Rector, had mental health problems and shouldn’t have died.

“He had flaws like all of us, but he did not deserve to be gunned down by some young person who thought they were a vigilante taking the law into their own hands,” Rector’s sister told KHOU.

Shooting deaths with a claim of self-defense are investigated by grand juries, but their proceedings are secret. The clerk has not been arrested.

The Chronicle looks at a few of the cases from 2010 in more detail—opening with the story of 24-year-old Benito Pantoja, who was shot in the back for stealing $20.29 from a tip jar at a taco truck—but they needn’t have gone back so far.

Last Monday, a Houston truck driver killed one of the two men he said was robbing the cab of his truck by beating the man to death with a metal bar. That same day, in the Pasadena area, neighbors at a mobile home park beat two alleged robbers with baseball bats so badly that they were both taken to the hospital by LifeFlight. On Thursday evening, a man shot both of the alleged burglars trying to break into his home, killing one.

The article does mention the recent grand jury decision not to indict a father in Shiner who allegedly found a man molesting his 5-year-old daughter and beat him to death.

Proponents of “Stand Your Ground” laws say that an armed populace is a safer populace, but an A&M study published in June says that’s not true. Economics professor Mark Hoekstra compared 2009-2010 FBI crime data from states with and without such laws and TM Daily Post quotes the results:

“We find no evidence of deterrence: burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault are unaffected by the laws. On the other hand, we find that murder and non-negligent manslaughter are increased 7 to 9 percent. This could represent either increased use of lethal force in self-defense situations, or the escalation of violence in otherwise non-lethal situations. Regardless, the results indicate that a primary consequence of strengthening self-defense law is increased homicide.”

While the Chronicle article doesn’t mention the study, it does acknowledge that a self-defense killing takes a toll on the shooter as well.

Said Rodrick Batiste, a Houstonian who shot a burglar in his home, “I try and tell people with the ‘You should have shot him again’ attitude, that is not really what you think. If you haven’t been there before, you don’t know what type of feelings overtake you. It changed me. There is nothing cool about taking somebody’s life.”

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.

  • Levi Sweeney

    Why should we listen to an economics guy when the issue is crime? Yeah, sure it leads to increased homicide, if by that you mean increased homicide of potentially homicidal criminals.