Monday, September 24, 2018
Public safety

Romano: Looking for justice in a hail of gunfire

The charge is murder, and the evidence is ample. There are witnesses and a video. There is a weapon and an admission. There is a dead man on the ground with wounds from 17 bullets.

But is there justice?

Is there any empathy for a 50-year-old man sitting in a jail cell, wondering whether his freedom was worth trading for his family’s safety?

Those are the lingering questions from a harrowing story that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times last Sunday by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lane DeGregory.

"The House on the Corner" detailed the 2016 night when Anthony Roy shot Bernard Richards across the street from Roy’s Clearwater home. The story also detailed three years of tension and fear caused by Richards and other drug dealers who used Roy’s outdoor furniture and electricity as if it were their own.

It is a story without simple answers, either legally, morally or realistically.

What we know is this:

Roy and his wife, Irene Quarles, were hostages in their own home. From the time they moved in, their lives were overrun by drug dealers, vagrants and contemptible people who thought nothing of spoiling someone else’s world by commandeering their property.

We also know this:

The couple repeatedly sought help from the police, but the problem did not abate. Later, they tried a futile attempt to make nice with the interlopers but that, too, was a hopeless effort.

Finally, we know this:

Roy snapped one night. When he felt Richards had humiliated him and then threatened his family, Roy went in the house, got a gun, and followed him across the street where he shot the unarmed Richards dead. In a fit of rage, he then began kicking the man’s prone body.

At the risk of sounding idealistic, and at the same time, alarmist:

How could this happen in America?

"It’s one of those cracks in the system,’’ said Lee Pearlman, Roy’s attorney. "If (Richards) had been punished for one of his multitude of offenses, then there might have been a resolution. But he kept getting out, and he kept coming back.

"It’s easy to deter somebody who has something to lose, but you can’t stop someone who doesn’t have any fear of having anything in their life taken away. That’s what I mean by a crack in the system. And in this case, the system has failed my client.’’

So why wasn’t Richards punished?

And why couldn’t police do more?

The answers to those questions are larger than this single story. It has to do with the criminal justice system, savvy drug dealers and the realities of a low-income neighborhood.

Police did show up at the Roy house. Many, many times. And Richards was arrested at least four times near that corner. But, though everyone agreed he was selling drugs, he was smart enough to never carry much at any one time. The charges were always minor.

Richards could have been cited for trespassing, and could eventually have been arrested for that too, but it would have carried a minor sentence, and escalated the tensions when he returned.

That fear, more than anything, is what drives homeowners to seek some sort of understanding with the criminals that populate low-income areas, according to Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter.

"I could clean up that corner in 24 hours; I could saturate the area and chase everyone away with increased visibility,’’ Slaughter said. "But how long can I do that? Eventually we have to .?.?. handle other situations. And then it goes right back to where it was before. If the socioeconomic factors of a neighborhood don’t change, it’s difficult to change other factors.

"It’s a complex problem, and it takes time to solve.’’

So where does that leave homeowners such as Roy?

In a lot of neighborhoods, the drug trade is run out of abandoned homes. In that case, a city can literally tear down an offending house. The problem is trickier when an innocent homeowner is victimized.

Clearwater City Manager William Horne said the city has had success in other problem areas through neighborhood activists and police working in unison. It is more difficult when an individual homeowner feels as if he or she is on an island.

"I felt really, really bad for that gentleman because I could relate to that feeling of being in a situation where he felt he had nowhere to go,’’ Horne said. "But the major takeaway is that you can’t take matters into your own hands. Keep reaching out, and you’ll eventually get the help you need.

" .?.?. I believe the helplessness he felt was real. He was being intimidated, and he just reached that tipping point. Just like a kid finally turning on his bully.’’

Today, the bully is dead and his target is looking at 20 years or more in prison.

The situation would have been different if Roy had shot Richards on his property. He might have had a case for stand your ground considering Richards had threatened to shoot up the home. But following Richards across the street and emptying his gun makes that defense problematic.

And Slaughter doesn’t buy the self-defense angle. He says it was rage and being disrespected that drove Roy to make the deliberate decision to kill.

Perhaps there is some truth to that. But it’s also true, and well documented, that Roy had reason to be angry, frustrated and fearful that evening.

I would hope the State Attorney’s Office would recognize there is more nuance to this case than a bullet-ridden body and a damning videotape. Prosecutors have turned down a request for an 18-year sentence, which already sounded too excessive to me.

Yet there is a danger in Roy taking the case to trial because even if a jury has sympathy and convicts him of a lesser charge, there is still a chance, at his age, that he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

So is there justice in this case?

I don’t see any at the moment.

But I would certainly seek it if I was on that jury.

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