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Robbery victim faces charge

Published Aug. 27, 2005

(ran LT edition of NATIONAL)

Three months ago, as Lawrence Storer worked late at his downtown restaurant, a man shoved a gun in his face and demanded money.

When the robber fled, Storer jumped into his Ford Explorer and gave chase. Three blocks later, the SUV struck the man, killing him.

At the time, the incident raised questions about how far a victim can go in pursuing a robber. On Tuesday, prosecutors with the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office weighed in with their opinion.

They charged Storer with one count of manslaughter.

"We live in a civilized society," said assistant state attorney Pam Bondi. "We are a nation of laws, and none of us has the right to violate the rules we share."

Storer's attorney John Fitzgibbons described the robber, 24-year-old Shantavious Wilson, as a "ticking time bomb," who had an extensive criminal record and was on the path toward "killing someone."

Wilson had a criminal record that included robbery with a weapon, carrying a concealed firearm, and performing a lewd and lascivious act on a child.

"Lawrence did not ask for this," Fitzgibbons said. "He was simply a businessman trying to earn a living by working 16 hours a day at his restaurant when someone pointed a gun at his head."

Storer, who turned himself in on Tuesday, faces a maximum of 15 years in prison. If convicted, the 33-year-old Storer would likely receive a lesser sentence given the circumstances of the case.

Late on Oct. 29, Storer was resting outside Sumos Thai restaurant on E Twiggs Street after doing some remodeling when Wilson approached him, demanding money, police said. Wilson brandished a firearm, which later was found to be a pellet gun.

When Storer said he had no money, Wilson forced him into the restaurant and took $15 in cash. Storer got away and called 911. Wilson ran off when he saw Storer on the phone, police said.

Storer hopped into his SUV and went to find Wilson, according to police. After spotting Wilson again, Storer drove the wrong way on Polk Street, police said. Storer then swerved into Wilson's path. Wilson died at the scene. Surveillance cameras mounted near the federal courthouse captured part of the chase.

Storer, who had no previous criminal record, "appeared shaken by the incident," police said at the time.

Wilson's father, Augustus Wilson, wondered why it took three months to charge Storer. If his son was white, he said, prosecutors would have pressed charges the same night.

Mr. Wilson said he understood how scared Storer must have felt. But he said Storer should not have gone after his son with his vehicle.

"He did his job. He called 911," Mr. Wilson said Tuesday. "That should have been it. It should have ended there."

Tampa attorney Eduardo Suarez said the law makes it clear that if an attacker is retreating and the threat is no longer imminent, a victim cannot use deadly force. Even if Storer did not mean to kill Wilson, driving after the attacker in a reckless manner could be considered a gross or flagrant disregard of human life, possible criteria for a manslaughter charge.

"As a society, we have to have a set of ground rules that we all live by," Suarez said. "Unfortunately, they will not be perfect for every situation."

Former prosecutor and assistant public defender Harvey Hyman found the manslaughter charge curious. If the prosecutors believe Storer acted as a vigilante, then the more appropriate charge would be murder, either first or second degree, he said.

"If they believe he intended to go after the guy out of revenge, then manslaughter doesn't fit," Hyman said. "It sounds like they might be cutting him a break."

Hyman and Suarez agreed that a jury would likely never hear about Wilson's previous criminal record. In most cases, jurors are asked to focus strictly on what happened during the incident in question.

Former prosecutor Paul Sisco said he wasn't as sure, given the circumstances in this case. He thought Wilson's criminal record could back up Storer's sense of fear and the sense of danger that he thought he was in.

"It could become pertinent, especially if the prosecutor tries to paint (Wilson) as a goody two shoes," Sisco said. "It might not be likely, but it's hard to tell until you get further into the case."

Sisco said it's easy to sit back after the incident and say Storer should not have given chase. But, at the time, Storer was likely still thinking that the attacker was a threat, Sisco said.

"Sometimes the State Attorney's Office needs to show some discretion in what they charge," Sisco said. "Sometimes the law might say something is wrong, but they should ask whether morally it was wrong."

Either way, Sisco said, Storer would be a sympathetic defendant to a jury.

"I'll tell you, it will be difficult in this town to get six people to say that that guy is a criminal," he said.