'Justified homicides' more than doubled
One hour after revelers welcomed the new year in 2008, a motorist at a Northwest Side intersection fired three shots into 24-year-old Tomas Garza, moments after authorities said Garza threatened the motorist with a baseball bat in an apparent road-rage incident.
The killing, the first of 137 recorded in San Antonio last year, was an act of self-defense, police later determined, and was classified by department officials as a justified homicide.
While the total number of killings in San Antonio barely budged in 2008 — up only slightly from the 134 recorded the prior year — detectives noted an upswing in cases in which the shooter was found to be within his rights, from instances of apparent self-defense to protecting one's home and family.
According to Police Department statistics, justified homicides in 2008 rose significantly, from seven in 2007 to 17 mirroring a nationwide trend. Of the 17, city and other area police officers were involved in seven.
“Nationally, it appears that justifiable homicides have increased,” criminologist James Alan Fox said. “The reasons could be many. We seem to be sending a message that it's acceptable to (use deadly force) even if there is a chance of fleeing.”
Fox said less-stringent gun laws — and a tendency to treat people like heroes if they use violent means to defend themselves — could have contributed to what he said is a more general acceptance of deadly force.
“There's always been a self-defense element in law,” he said, “but what we've been telling people more and more is don't flee, and if you are afraid you can defend yourself.”
Several of the Alamo City's justified homicide cases were classified as such under the state's “castle doctrine,” a law that allows property owners to resort to deadly force to protect themselves and their homes.
Police Chief William McManus said San Antonians may have been more willing to protect themselves and their homes after gaining a better understanding of their rights.
In last year's cases, McManus said, it appeared that “people are abiding by the law and acting within the law.”
But, an SAPD official said, it's difficult to definitively compare last year's total number of justified homicides to years past because of incorrect classifications that didn't comply with FBI criteria.
A city audit released last year showed that during an 18-month period, from the start of 2006 to June 2007, justified homicides were routinely classified incorrectly.
Following the audit, the Police Department implemented suggested recommendations, and in 2008, justified killings were included in the total tally, along with all other homicides.
Other homicides investigated last year include 116 slayings that were classified as murders, 11 fewer than the prior year, and three manslaughters.
No section of the city — nor any segment of the population — was left unscathed, from the bow-and-arrow slaying of prominent restaurateur Viola Barrios to the retaliatory gang-involved fatal shootings on the East Side to the smothering of a baby in a commercial dryer on the Southwest Side.
“Homicides are not something that are easily prevented,” McManus said.
Even so, McManus said the recording last year of fewer cases that were classified as murder — down from 2007 when a decade high 127 were investigated — shows progress, especially when matched with a clearance rate that he said hovers above the national average.
“Getting those people off the street reduces their potential to commit crimes,” he said.
Of last year's cases, 48 remain under investigation with no arrest made.
At the end of 2007, San Antonio police faced a sharp rise in slayings, figures that hadn't been seen since the mid-1990s. To combat the escalating violence, McManus created specialized teams, like the Tactical Response Unit, and, among other measures, beefed up the gang unit and added a night homicide team.
The department also put in place a policy to more quickly issue warrants in cases of domestic violence and worked more closely with Child Protective Services.
“I think that going after gangs, drugs, guns and family violence, you stand a better chance in helping to prevent (homicides) or bring those numbers down than by just hoping they come down,” McManus said.
All 2008 numbers are unofficial until sent to the FBI to be included in the annual Uniform Crime Report, or UCR.
Nationwide, the unofficial tally of homicides remained somewhat constant, Fox said, with some cities last year seeing upswings and others recording significant decreases.
New York and Chicago, for example, noted increases, while other major cities, including Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, recorded fewer violent deaths than in 2007, according to the Associated Press.
In Texas, Austin's homicides fell from 30 in 2007 to 23 in 2008, according to the Austin Police Department. In Houston, authorities recorded 54 fewer homicides last year, from 348 in 2007 to 294, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Locally, the most significant change was seen outside the San Antonio city limits in Bexar County, where homicides jumped from 10 in 2007 to 21 last year, according to county officials. A Sheriff's Office spokesman was unable last week to immediately identify reasons for the increase.
Among the justified homicides last year in San Antonio was the May killing of 50-year-old Jesse Carrion.
It was just before 11:30 p.m. on a weekday when the owner of a home and small carpentry business on Roland Avenue heard someone in his backyard. He went outside and saw a man with a pipe beating his dog, according to a police report. The home and the back building with the tools had been burglarized in the past.
The man with the pipe, identified as Carrion, advanced into the yard, where he was shot and killed by the homeowner, an act that authorities determined fell within the parameters of the castle doctrine.
While many state and local residents applaud the law, hailing it as a way to give property owners a leg up against criminals, some fear it instead encourages vigilantism, and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach.
St. Mary's University law Professor Gerald Reamey, who specializes in criminal law and procedure, wrote a commentary piece for the San Antonio Express-News in April 2007 calling for caution in the application of the castle doctrine. After its publication, he said he was flooded with angry responses and even hate mail.
“I very often get taken to task,” he said. “People think that somehow, if someone does something bad, they forfeited their rights.”
Sometimes, people end up in homes because they are disoriented or drunk or just confused, he said, as was the case in one 2007 incident in San Antonio. The intent isn't to harm, and besides, Reamey said, burglary isn't punishable by the death penalty.
“I'm not arguing as policy that all these people are good people,” he said. “There are bad people out there. What worries me is that people will prematurely react, then it's too late to find out, well the person was there for an innocent reason.”
The law, Reamey said, tries to strike a balance.
“Will you kill some bad people? Yes, you will,” he said. “Will you kill some innocent ones? Yeah, unfortunately you will.”
Another concern, Reamey said, is the broad application of the law.
“It gives you an easy way to get rid of cases,” he said. “If it's a bad fella, then you think, ‘I don't have to look too closely at this.'”
Rocky Bernal's family shares Reamey's concerns.
Bernal, whose criminal past included burglary and assault, was shot five times Dec. 30 by an active-duty soldier who was visiting his mother for the holidays. The shooter, who police have not identified because he is not charged with a crime, told detectives he felt threatened by Bernal, who also was visiting the same Southwest Side apartment complex and who allegedly reached into his waistband as he walked toward the soldier.
While Bernal's shooting death — the last of 2008 — was not officially classified last week, detectives said they are investigating it as a possible justified homicide. And so the year's total figure of justified killings soon could be amended, and the year would have ended just as it began.