Sunday, June 24, 2018
Public safety

Authorities declare two Hillsborough shootings justified

TAMPA — A 26-year-old man is gunned down by his father after the pair fight in their Lutz yard. Another young man, Daniel Crespo, is fatally shot in Town 'N Country as he argues with a man twice his age.

Both shootings happened in Hillsborough County last fall. Sheriff's deputies investigated, and in Crespo's case, prosecutors deliberated. Each time, the shooter was not charged.

Authorities said there was not enough evidence to disprove the shootings were self-defense, authorities said.

The Tampa Bay Times obtained hundreds of pages of investigative reports on the incidents, which in each case indicate opportunities for the shooters to walk away instead of firing. But under Florida's "stand your ground" law, people who fear for their lives don't have to retreat.

Still, a deputy asked the gun-toting father, Henry Harris, 61, this question, as his son lay in the hospital with a collapsed lung: "Could you have walked away?"

Harris stumbled.

"I don't know I could," he said. "Well, I, I, now you're, you're — it's kinda like now you're looking at (it) in hindsight."

• • •

Daniel Crespo was sitting outside a friend's house on Oct. 23 with about a half-dozen others. A man he didn't know walked by, giving the group a "dirty look," some remembered.

He was Israel Sanchez, 49, the homeowner's boyfriend, who lived down the street. Sanchez passed by a few more times. An argument broke out.

From there, recollections differ.

All saw Crespo, 21, stand up. Some saw him put on a motorcycle or workout glove. Some said it appeared he was ready to fight Sanchez. No one saw either throw a punch.

They were 2 feet apart, one said, though estimates ranged up to 5 yards.

That's when Sanchez pulled out a gun and fired one shot, hitting Crespo in the chest, everyone recalled.

Crespo's girlfriend cradled him as he gasped for air. He was declared dead at the hospital.

Sanchez later told a deputy that "four to five people" had cornered him and that one had put on a glove and said, "I'm going to kick your a--."

Sanchez said he was afraid to fight because he is "broken" and weak after a back surgery.

Deputies interviewed all the witnesses and pulled Sanchez's medical records from Florida Orthopedic Institute. They did not arrest him.

On Feb. 19, the State Attorney's Office announced it would not file charges.

Deciding whether to file charges can be difficult and often brings criticism, said retired prosecutor and current University of Florida law professor Bob Deckle. But it must be based on logic, not emotion — and, by law, prosecutors can only charge if they feel they have a reasonable chance of conviction, Deckle said.

He said prosecutors' decision not to charge is "not a ringing endorsement of what (Sanchez) did."

"A prosecutor has to decide whether to file charges based on whether he thinks he can prove a person guilty," Deckle said.

Under "stand your ground," Sanchez did not have to retreat. But it might also be classic self-defense, Deckle said, if Sanchez indeed had a bad back.

"He might quite reasonably think that if he tries to get out of there, '(Crespo) is going to catch me,' " Deckle said.

• • •

In Lutz, Eric Harris and his father, Henry Harris, were known to argue. Neighbors often heard raised voices. They feared the father's aggressive pit bulls.

On the night of Sept. 14, Eric Harris, 26, got into an argument with his father, which spilled onto the porch. They started wrestling.

Eric Harris says it was just grappling. Two dogs started fighting, too, so the Harris men stopped for a minute. They had some space between them.

That's when, the son says, Henry Harris shot him.

Henry Harris told deputies otherwise. He said his son choked him. The pair fell to the ground. Then, somehow — he doesn't remember how— Henry Harris got free.

That's when, he said, his son charged at him. Henry Harris fired his gun once, hitting his son in the chest.

"I thought to myself: 'If he grabs me, he's gonna kill me,' " Henry Harris later told a deputy.

Eric Harris survived, and deputies charged him with battery, saying he choked his father. The charge was recently dropped.

Authorities never charged Henry Harris.

That baffles Eric Harris and his attorney, Brian Shrader, who points to inconsistencies in Henry Harris' story, detailed in a sheriff's report. For one, Henry Harris said he fell to the ground as they fought — but the grass was wet with dew, and a deputy noted that Henry Harris' pants were without stains.

Still, four days after the shooting, a deputy wrote: "I have no proof that the shooter Henry Harris did not fear for his life. I have been unable to locate any witnesses to the actual shooting and Eric Harris admitted to placing his hands on Henry Harris' throat prior to being shot."

In this case, it appears that deputies had a choice of two stories and they chose to either believe the father or to conclude that they couldn't prove otherwise, Deckle said.

Here, "stand your ground" is less relevant because the father was on his own property when he fired the gun, the law professor said. Under the long-standing "castle doctrine," people can defend themselves in their home.

Eric Harris hasn't talked to his father since the shooting. He said last week that he thinks deputies should have done more digging. His father is a "hothead," he said, who only cared about getting his gun back from authorities.

"I never heard an apology," Eric Harris said. "He never asked how I was doing."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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