September 05, 2022
By Brad Fitzpatrick
On a Tuesday afternoon Deverick Woodfork drove his wife and two young sons to an outlet store in Houston to select new flooring for their home. The family planned to eat dinner at a local restaurant after a brief stop at the store. There would not be a family dinner that night, and a typical Tuesday afternoon turned into a nightmare for the Woodfork family when Deverick stepped out of his van in the parking lot of the flooring store and was confronted by a man holding a pistol and demanding the keys to the family’s van.
Before Deverick could respond, the attacker fired a shot from his .45 ACP pistol. The bullet narrowly missed Deverick and struck the dashboard of his van. Deverick, who had a concealed-carry permit, drew his own pistol and returned fire. With the rush of Interstate 45 traffic rolling by, and a chorus of screams from his wife and children, Deverick Woodfork found himself embroiled in a life-and-death shootout with an assailant who clearly intended to take the family’s vehicle by any means necessary. Deverick fired four shots, two of which struck the offender. During the shootout, the attacker fired several more shots, some of which struck the van. Miraculously, none of the attacker’s bullets hit the Woodfork family. Eventually, the shots Deverick fired disabled the attacker, and the family survived this terrifying event.
Thanks to the personal defense training Deverick had received, he managed to stop the attack. By most accounts he was a hero. A good guy. But that didn’t stop police from aggressively questioning him after the shooting. Fortunately for Deverick, he was prepared for that, too. He is a U.S. LawShield member and contacted independent practicing attorney Emily Taylor of Walker & Taylor, PLLC.
“Deverick’s case is a great example of a self-defender doing everything right, yet still being subjected to heavy police scrutiny,” says Taylor. “Until law enforcement viewed the surveillance camera footage, they questioned Deverick’s statement, even going so far as to allege (baselessly) his event may have been prompted by some ‘gang involvement.’ By pure luck, a video captured the incident and ensured Deverick would not have to fight for his freedom after having fought for his life.”
Most people who carry a legally concealed firearm for personal defense assume they are the “good guy” and that their actions will be justified. But even in cases like Woodfork’s, where one party acted in accordance with the law, the aftermath of a self-defense shooting can result in an arrest and trial. The legal system must examine the evidence and determine whether the use of force was warranted. Oftentimes, truth prevails, and the innocent party is acquitted in a legitimate act of self-defense, but that’s not always the case.
In Deverick’s situation, the evidence suggested he was within his rights to return fire, but would the result have been the same if he hadn’t had immediate access to an attorney who was familiar with gun law and understood the legal system? What if there hadn’t been video evidence to support his claim? Your firearm can protect you during a violent encounter, but who protects your rights after you pull the trigger?
At the annual U.S. LawShield writers’ symposium in Houston, I had a chance to speak with Deverick and several of the independent practicing attorneys who represent gun owners in the minutes, hours, weeks and years that follow an act of self-defense. As I listened to attorneys who specialize in criminal defense—many of whom had previously worked as prosecutors—describe multiple self-defense scenarios, I began to understand why anyone who carries a firearm needs more than a rudimentary understanding of gun law.
Sometimes the legal system has a difficult time deciphering who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Sometimes someone whose actions are completely justified unwittingly does or says something that’s detrimental to their own self-defense case, which is understandable in the heart-pounding moments after a violent encounter. Organizations like U.S. LawShield are not “murder insurance,” as they are sometimes portrayed by the mainstream media. The system doesn’t exist to exonerate criminals. If you commit an illegal act, this type of insurance doesn’t provide you with a “get out of jail free” card. What it does provide you is around-the-clock access to an attorney who specializes in firearm and personal defense law. These programs don’t exist to keep criminals on the street but rather to prevent law-abiding citizens from going to prison.
So how could a law-abiding citizen face charges for a clear-cut case of self-defense? It does happen. It might have happened in Deverick’s case were it not for Emily Taylor’s help. And in many other cases presented during the symposium, attendees learned of real court cases where a self-defense situation turned into a murder trial. If you survive a violent attack, you’ll have a chance to tell your side of the story, but your alleged attacker may not. It then falls into the hands of detectives, prosecutors, a judge and a jury to decide whether your act was justified—and whether you deserve to remain free.
“Even when a self-defender is a pure ‘good guy,’ he is still likely going to be treated like a criminal,” Taylor says. “It can make or break your self-defense case to have attorney advice immediately after an incident occurs—if possible, even before police arrive. Like it or not, your legal battle begins the second the gun fight is over.”
Even if you are found to be innocent in the eyes of the law, you’ll still face the financial burden of hiring a defense attorney if you’re charged. The average murder trial requires around 1,000 hours of work by your attorney, and that can cost well over six figures. Lesser felony charges like manslaughter or aggravated assault may still cost tens of thousands of dollars. If you’re wondering how an innocent person can be charged in a crime, check out this example.
A motorcyclist in Colorado was trying to avoid an angry man in a pickup truck during a road rage incident. The motorcyclist fled into a residential area to avoid the pursuer but became lost. While trying to exit the residential neighborhood, he found himself on a dead-end street where, by a terrible stroke of bad luck, his assailant lived. The attacker blocked the motorcyclist’s escape and threatened him, at which point the man on the motorcycle drew his firearm. Despite having gone to great lengths to avoid the conflict, the motorcyclist suddenly found himself in a dangerous situation—and in real risk of being charged with a crime since the offender called police and, not surprisingly, denied much of his role in the encounter.
The motorcyclist was a U.S. LawShield member, and his attorney demonstrated to the prosecutor that the motorcyclist had acted in accordance with the law when he was faced with an imminent threat. Most jurors in criminal cases are not experts in self-defense. As a defendant, you must rely on your attorney to help educate the jurors on the realities of personal defense and life-or-death struggles. During deliberations uneducated jurors may wonder why you didn’t just “shoot the attacker in the leg,” as many people without an intimate understanding of lethal violence may suggest.
Even a juror who is trained in personal defense and carries a concealed weapon may second-guess the decisions you made if an attorney does not clearly explain what happens to the human body when you are terrified and facing the imminent threat of severe bodily harm or death. Expanding research on the mind and body’s reaction to severe stress is teaching all of us that our natural assumptions of what happens during a violent attack is oftentimes inaccurate.
Von Kliem of the Force Science Institute has served as a senior prosecutor, police legal advisor, special assistant U.S. attorney, patrol officer and investigator. He has an intimate understanding of the use of force and has been called to testify in several high-profile cases in recent years. According to him, we aren’t always precise witnesses even when we are directly involved in the action.
“People don’t accurately remember quotes, distance, number of shots and other elements in a violent encounter,” says Kliem. Our minds, research shows, don’t act like video recorders. Instead, the brain commits pieces of data to memory. Perhaps you’ve been in a car accident and clearly remember the weather but cannot accurately recall a broad array of other, seemingly more important, details about the event. For this reason, Kliem says, humans are prone to confabulation—or honest lying, as he calls it. Our memories fill in the blanks, and this is particularly true in violent encounters. The major events will be remembered, but small details might become conflated. This can appear to investigators as lying, and it’s enough to make an innocent person appear to be a suspect.
Jurors aren’t likely to be familiar with the concept of confabulation unless an expert like Kliem explains how research shows that factual untruth might not mean intentional deceit. Another key finding from the Force Science Institute has to do with reaction time and shot placement in a self-defense situation. It’s long been assumed that an armed person who shoots another person in the back is automatically ineligible to plead self-defense. On the surface this notion makes perfect sense, but research has shown that the average person can fire a shot and turn around in about 0.2 second.
By contrast, the average person who is holding a gun might take as long as 0.5 second to register a threat, decide to fire, aim and pull the trigger. Clearly, then, a shot to the back could be justified because the threat was real and imminent, but that’s going to be difficult to explain to a jury without someone who is well versed in the complexities of force science.
“Misunderstanding force science gets innocent people put in jail,” Kliem says. Last but certainly not least, it’s easy to assume that self-defense laws are similar throughout the nation. In reality, our country is a mosaic of different jurisdictions with different rules regarding personal protection. What may be legal in one jurisdiction may not be in another, so that’s why U.S. LawShield employs attorneys in each of the 46 states in which the organization operates. Even familiar concepts like “Castle Doctrine” vary from one state or city to another, and the wording of state laws can have a major impact on the outcome of a case.
For example, Drew Eddy of Colorado defended a client who shared a rental house with serval other people. Since Castle Doctrine is widely assumed to protect a dwelling, Eddy had to establish that, in the case of the rental house, an individual’s room served as a dwelling within a dwelling when his client was forced to shoot a housemate who was attacking him during a violent dispute over a parking space.
Personal defense cases in a court of law are rarely as simple as good guy versus bad guy. The U.S. justice system is designed to protect the rights of citizens, but it isn’t perfect. Most police, prosecutors, judges and jury members do their best to uphold the laws, but that’s of little comfort if you’re being accused of a crime you didn’t commit. That’s why joining an organization like U.S. LawShield makes sense for every firearms owner.