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Jury acquits shooter in Pasco's 'stand your ground' trial

Max Wesley Horn spent the past two years behind bars, awaiting trial for shooting a man at a crowded street festival.

He killed Joe Martell, but he believed he was right in doing it.

After deliberating nearly three hours Thursday, a jury agreed.

"I knew all along that the law was with me," Horn said after being found not guilty of second-degree murder under Florida's "stand your ground" law that allows people to meet force with force anywhere they feel threatened.

Horn's case was not the first to test this relatively new doctrine, but it was among the best-known and most-watched.

The verdict stunned Martell's friends — some of them gun owners who were amazed that the law would excuse their friend's death.

"You can't shoot people over an argument," said Dan Shell, a friend of Martell's since high school. "Or, I guess you can."

The shooting happened March 29, 2008, amid a huge crowd at the downtown after-party of the Chasco parade. Horn, a video producer with three kids, was there with his wife and friends. Martell was with another group. The two men didn't know each other.

Horn, 48, testified that he was waiting to go inside Hot Shotz bar and grill with his wife and friends when Martell, 34, burst out the door, knocking down a woman and pushing several others. A fight began to erupt and Martell got into a dispute with two of Horn's family members.

"Then he starts on me. … I told him, 'I can't fight you,' " Horn said.

Horn had a concealed weapons permit and a serious heart condition. He lifted his shirt to reveal he was armed. "I'll shoot you," he told Martell.

Martell's friend Scott Hicks testified that he dragged Martell into a bar across the street to calm him down. But as soon as they got inside, Martell disappeared out a side door.

Horn said Martell advanced on him, and without warning punched him in the head. As he righted himself, he drew his gun and fired at Martell's abdomen.

"I knew I couldn't sustain another punch like that," Horn said.

Once upright, he fired again and again. Martell lunged forward, swiping at the gun, Horn said. One bullet struck him in the back of his shoulder; the others hit several places on his torso.

Assistant State Attorney Jim Goodnow pressed Horn about why none of the two dozen eyewitnesses called by the state recalled seeing any physical contact between the two. Horn had no answer. The defense called three witnesses who said they did see the punch but had obstructed views of the incident.

Goodnow implored jurors to dismiss Horn's heart condition as a play for sympathy.

"You cannot put a heart condition up there as an excuse to go up there and sink six bullets — boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom — into Martell," Goodnow said in his closing argument. "It's not an excuse. It's not justifiable to taking a life."

But Horn's condition compared with Martell's size — he was 6 feet 6, 328 pounds — were among the issues jurors had to consider in deciding between murder and self-defense.

Martell grew up in the area and worked with his father as an asphalt plant operator. He left behind a young son, Travis. His friends and family — some of whom witnessed his death — watched the trial this week.

His mother, Mary, nearly collapsed in the courthouse lobby after the verdict and had to be helped out by her husband.

"A murderer walked free," said Ed Hicks, Scott Hicks' father.

But Horn's attorney, Keith Hammond, told jurors, "He's doing what he's got a right to do."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Jury acquits shooter in Pasco's 'stand your ground' trial 01/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:22pm]
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