June 30, 2008 -- A Texas man who shot and killed two men he believed to be burglarizing his neighbor's home won't be going to trial. A grand jury today failed to indict Joe Horn, a 61-year-old computer technician who lives in an affluent subdivision in Pasadena, Texas.
In the Lone Star state, where the six-gun tamed the frontier, shooting bad guys is a time-honored tradition, and Horn's case centered on a Texas state law based on the old idea that "a man's home is his castle." The "castle law" gives Texans unprecedented legal authority to use deadly force in their homes, vehicles and workplaces. And no longer do they have an obligation to retreat, if possible, before they shoot.
"I understand the concerns of some in the community regarding Mr. Horn's conduct," Harris County District Attorney Kenneth Magidson told reporters at the courthouse. "The use of deadly force is carefully limited in Texas law to certain circumstances. ... In this case, however, the grand jury concluded that Mr. Horn use of deadly force did not rise to a criminal offense."
'I'm Gonna Shoot!' Horn called 911 in November to report a burglary in broad daylight at the house next door.
"I've got a shotgun; you want me to stop him?" Horn asked the dispatcher.
"Nope. Don't do that," the dispatcher replied. "Ain't no property worth shooting somebody over, OK?"
Horn was clearly upset by the dispatcher's response.
"I'm not gonna let them get away with it," he said. "I can't take a chance getting killed over this, OK."
Despite the dispatcher's protects, Horn said, "I'm gonna shoot! I'm gonna shoot!"
The 911 dispatcher warned Horn to stay inside at least a dozen separate times, telling him, "An officer is coming out there. I don't want you to go outside that house."
Then Horn sounding angrier by the moment cited the new Texas law.
"OK, but I have a right to protect myself too, sir," he said. "And you understand that. And the laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it and I know it."
Moments later, Horn saw two burglars leave his neighbor's house, one of them carrying a bag filled with cash and jewelry.
"I'm gonna kill him," Horn said. "Stay in the house," the dispatcher said. "They're getting away," Horn replied. "That's all right," the dispatcher said. "Property's not worth killing someone over. OK?" "---damn it," said Horn, who then defied the dispatcher.
"Well, here it goes, buddy, you hear the shotgun clicking, and I'm going," he said.
"Don't go outside," the dispatcher warned.
Self-Defense? Horn says he came out his front door, down his porch and confronted the two burglars. The next sounds heard on the 911 tape are Horn ordering the two men to stop & and then shooting them both.
"Move you're dead," he said, and fired his shotgun three times.
"Both suspects were shot in the back," Pasadena Police Captain A.H. "Bud" Corbett said. "Not at the same angle, but both suspects were hit in the back."
Horn fatally shot the burglars, two illegal immigrants from Colombia named Diego Ortiz and Miguel de Jesus. Stephanie Storey, De Jesus' fiancée, wanted to see Joe Horn prosecuted.
"This man took the law into his own hands," she said. "He shot two individuals in the back after having been told over and over to stay inside. It was his choice to go outside and his choice to take two lives."
Horn turned down an ABC News request for an interview but his attorney Tom Lambright insists Horn was entirely justified.
"He was afraid for his life," Lambright said. "He was afraid for his safety, and then they charged him. I don't think Joe had time to make a conscious decision. I think he only had time to react to what was going on. Short answer is, he was defending his life. "
Lambright acknowledged that the 911 dispatcher urged Horn to stay inside but said, "Joe was doing what he thought was necessary. As a man, he thought it was his duty to protect his house, his neighborhood, his community."
The Horn case has aroused plenty of passion. At a recent demonstration outside his home, police in riot gear stood by as activists demanded prosecution while counter-demonstrators defended him, including a group of bikers led by Randy Laird.
"In this grand jury decision, we look for a complete acquittal, no charge of any kind, and that's what we believe will be right," Laird said then. "That's what's going to make either the Castle Doctrine stand or fall."
The Castle Next Door Some prosecutors are wary of "Castle Law."
"There's too many imponderables in this law, whereas the previous law was working just fine," said Warren Diepraam, the Harris County Assistant District Attorney. "Frankly, life is precious."
The critical legal question hinged on whether Horn acted in a reasonable way to defend his neighbor's property.
"You cannot take another person's life in defense of their property unless you're somehow given permission by the other person to protect their property," Diepraam said.
On that 911 call, the dispatcher asked Horn directly about the owners of the house that was being burglarized, and whether he knew them.
"I really don't know these neighbors," Horn said. "I know the neighbors on the other side really well & I can assure you if it had been their house, I'd already have done something." Still, Lambright says that his client "absolutely" had his neighbors' permission.
"There's no question about it," he said. "They'd tell you today that they are very happy that he was there and that he was watching out. Every neighbor in the state of Texas watches out for one another."
"In most situations, calling 911 is the best remedy, not calling out for your 9-millimeter," Diepraam said.
'A No-Brainer' Damon Barone, who killed a burglar in his own home, isn't sure whether Joe Horn was justified, but he does believe the Castle Doctrine has already delivered a crystal clear message to criminals.
Barone said that in Texas, the occupational hazard of burglarizing someone's home is "death."
"If you're lucky, you'll get arrested and sent to jail," he said.
In December 2007, Barone confronted a burglar breaking into his Houston home in the middle of the night. His wife, baby daughter and 6-year-old son were asleep when Barone heard a commotion and grabbed his Glock handgun.
"I heard a crashing through my window & [in] my bedroom, and I got my gun," Barone said.
"When I came around the corner, I saw the silhouette in my window, I pointed my weapon, I fired three times," he said.
Asked if he was shooting to kill, Barone said, "Yes."
The burglar Barone shot dead had a lengthy criminal record, and Barone had a permit for his gun. Even before the new law, he certainly could have been justified in using deadly force. But the "Castle Law" gives Barone added protection from criminal prosecution and even civil lawsuits.
Barone is "positive" that he did the right thing.
"And if I had to do it over again, I would," he added. "I mean, that's the safety of my family over us being hurt. It's a no-brainer for me."
So in Texas, the old tradition of shooting bad guys carries on. The big question now is whether a man's castle also includes & his neighbor's home.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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