Self-Defense or Murder? Oklahoma Case Sparks Debate

Jerome Ersland shot 16-year-old six times during an attempted robbery.

ByABC News
May 30, 2011, 10:49 AM

May 30, 2011 -- A story of crime and punishment that is dividing an Oklahoma community has now entered the online world, raising questions about what is self-defense and first-degree murder.

The debate stems from the life sentence an Oklahoma City, Okla., jury handed down to pharmacist Jerome Ersland on May 26 for a first-degree murder conviction in the killing of 16 year-old Antwun Parker.

Ersland's attorneys told jurors throughout the murder trial that their client had acted in self-defense when he shot Parker six times during an attempted robbery at his Oklahoma City pharmacy. Prosecutors, meanwhile, argued Ersland went too far.

"This defendant was absolutely not defending himself or anyone else," Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Chance told jurors during closing arguments Thursday.

Defense attorney Irven Box asked jurors to close their eyes and imagine what they would do in the same situation.

"He eliminated the armed robber," Box said.

After 3.5 hours of deliberation, the jury — eight women and four men — recommended a life sentence.

Self-Defense, or Murder?

In the days since the verdict, an outpouring of support erupted in Ersland's hometown of Oklahoma City, with calls for Oklahamo Gov. Mary Fallin to commute the local man's sentence.

"I'm gonna spend the rest of my career, however long it may be, trying to right this wrong," one prominent supporter, Oklahoma State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R), told ABC News.

Ersland, 59, had been hailed as a hero for protecting two co-workers during the May 19, 2009, robbery attempt at the Reliable Discount Pharmacy in south Oklahoma City.

Dramatic surveillance video of the attempted burglary shows Parker and an accomplice running into the pharmacy in the crime-ridden neighborhood and pointing a gun directly at Ersland.

The video then shows Ersland, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, firing a pistol at the two men, hitting Parker with one shot that knocked him to the ground.

After chasing Parker's accomplice out of the store, Ersland retrieved a second gun and returned to shoot Parker five more times, 46 seconds after firing the first shot.

Ersland's lawyer told ABC News that the pharmacist saw Parker moving and thought he was still alive, and still a threat."

Now the debate over his sentencing has taken to Facebook, with pages both for and against Ersland's punishment, and Twitter, where posts and tweets have been just as divided.

One Facebook page supporting Ersland has more than 2,000 followers, while other groups say his punishment is deserved. Facebook pages such as "Free Jerome Ersland" and "Pardon for Jerome Ersland" have also sparked petition sites with goals of sending more than 5,000 signatures to Gov. Fallin.

But any action by the governor on the case will not be soon.

First, Ersland must go before the judge in the case, Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott, on July 11, for sentencing.

The judge could suspend part or all of the life term. If he chooses to uphold the jury's full suggestion, Ersland will not be eligible for parole for another 38 years and three months.

Jurors had the option of finding Ersland guilty of first-degree manslaughter instead of murder, or of acquitting him.

Ersland's attorneys have vowed to appeal the murder conviction of their client, and have also asked that the formal sentencing be rescheduled for as soon as possible.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.