A little more than three months prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting, police in Scottsdale, Arizona faced their own challenge with their state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
On the evening of November 10, 2011, criminal defense attorney David Appleton headed home after having dinner with friends at a restaurant. As he approached the intersection where he would turn left, he noticed the hard arrow was about to change so he sped up to try and make the light. A Honda Ridgeline was in the way, preventing him from doing so.
Upset, Appleton and the driver of the Ridgeline, Tom Pearson, yelled at each other while their light remained red. When the light changed, Pearson pursued Appleton for about a mile. Appleton opted to not call 911 - something he had done in all four of his prior road rage incidents documented with police. Instead, for reasons known only to him, he pulled into an unlit parking lot behind a CVS. Pearson pulled up 28 feet behind Appleton’s FJ Cruiser and approached his vehicle. Pearson carried only a cell phone which he held to his ear as he approached the vehicle, speaking to a cousin of his from his home state of Wyoming. He told his cousin that a driver who tried to run a red light was angry with him, and he was approaching the vehicle. The cousin heard the two men shout at each other, heard Pearson shout “Don’t shoot that gun!” but heard nothing else. The line went silent.
Shortly after that moment, 911 dispatch received a call from an agitated Appleton. With a shaky voice, he stated “I’ve been attacked. I had to use my weapon, please get here fast...hurry, hurry, hurry!” He told the dispatcher a person choked him and he shot him in the chest. After being instructed to put pressure on Pearson’s wound while waiting for the paramedics, Appleton breathed rapidly into the phone and asked, “why’d you do this? God damn it!” Police and paramedics arrived to find Pearson lying partially on the curb near Appleton’s car. Tom Pearson, husband and father of 3 teenage daughters, was pronounced dead at 8:01 p.m. that night. The crime scene specialist noted that Appleton had a broken nail on his pinky, red marks on his neck, but showed no other evidence of being attacked.
These are the only facts that have been corroborated thus far in the case.
In questioning, Appleton stated Pearson reached into the FJ Cruiser and grabbed Appleton’s wrist. Appleton broke free, and stated Pearson began to choke him to the point he almost lost consciousness. Appleton brandished his gun, and Pearson told him to not shoot while still choking him. Appleton then said he shot him. When asked why he didn’t drive away when he had the chance, or why he didn’t call 911 prior to the incident, as he had done with his other encounters, Appleton had no answer.
The police charged Appleton with second-degree murder, only to release him 10 days later at the instruction of the Maricopa County Attorney’s office. Appleton could be charged with the crime at a later time, but the police needed to build a better case to be able to do so.
Unless the police can gather adequate evidence, David Appleton is protected under Arizona’s “Castle Doctrine,” another term for the “Stand Your Ground” law. Signed into law in 2006 by then-governor Janet Napolitano, the law states that a person “is justified in using physical force or deadly physical force against another person” if they believe they are in imminent peril, and the incident takes place in the person’s residence or motor vehicle. Based on the information laid out above, it is clear that Pearson instigated or at least exacerbated the incident by approaching a vehicle, but at what point is an act no longer considered self-defense? And should the shooter’s prior history be taken into consideration when assessing the incident? These two questions are not clearly defined in the law, yet are two major questions in this particular case.
It is with little doubt if someone is strangling you and you shoot them, it is self-defense; but what if you had the following options prior to this moment: drive into a well-lit and populated area, or call the police? And what if you took neither of those options and elected to drive behind a closed store in an unlit parking lot where no one could witness what was happening? And when you remained in your car and had the option to drive away as he approached the vehicle or at any point thereafter, you elected to not drive away and shoot the person? Does this law mean you aren’t held accountable for ignoring any of the alternate choices presented to you?
In regards to history, should Appleton’s past be considered when looking at this case? Prior to the shooting, he was involved in 4 other road rage incidents where police were contacted. Two of those incidents were in 2011 and police determined that he was the aggressor in both. In one of the cases, he told a 911 dispatcher that he was going to display his weapon to the other driver after the driver blocked him in a construction zone. The dispatcher instructed him not to, and any altercation was avoided. He also has a history of traffic violations on his record - including numerous speeding violations, driving without insurance, and driving in the HOV lane illegally.
The only thing that is 100% clear in this case is two drivers made a series of bad decisions that lead to the death of a husband, father and friend. Regardless of Appleton’s history, he did not make Pearson follow him into the parking lot, nor did he make Pearson approach his vehicle. Does that justify Pearson’s death in any way? Not at all. Two people argued over missing a traffic light, one of them was armed, and every decision made after the arrow turned red led to a senseless, avoidable death in an unlit parking lot. This is what can happen when two people feel they are in their right to stand their ground.