April 4, 2014— -- A Washington man is on trial this morning, accused of first-degree manslaughter for gunning down a man who was stealing his SUV.
The shooting happened on March 25, 2013. Gail Gerlach, 56, walked outside his Spokane home to see Brendon Kaluza-Graham driving off in his SUV, so he fired a single shot from his 9mm semiautomatic from about 60 feet away.
The bullet went through the rear window and headrest, hitting Kaluza-Graham’s spine at the base of the skull and killing him almost instantly. Gerlach has a permit for the weapon.
Gerlach claims that he thought he saw Kaluza-Graham pointing a gun at him and believed his life was in danger.
“This case has a theme, and the theme of this case is the sight of fear,” Gerlach’s attorney, Richard Lee, said in court.
Prosecutors contend that it was physically impossible for Gerlach to see the victim as the car was driving off, that the windows were too tinted and dirty. Additionally, Kaluza-Graham was unarmed.
Prosecutors say Gerlach firing his gun was reckless and unnecessary.
The first-degree manslaughter charge requires proof that Gerlach acted recklessly. Gerlach, a self-employed plumber, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
ABC's Chief Legal Affairs anchor Dan Abrams said the case is complicated by the self-defense angle.
“To argue self-defense – that you felt in danger when you used your gun on someone who was driving away – seems like a real longshot,” Abrams said. “But in practice, getting a jury to agree unanimously to convict someone for shooting at a man who was stealing his car out of his driveway could be really hard.”
Abrams said one detail kept prosecutors from upgrading the charges to murder.
“The fact there was just one shot tipped it in favor of manslaughter. If there had been more than one shot, this probably would have been a murder case, so the manslaughter charge was something of a compromise. But it may be hard to get a conviction on that,” Abrams said.