PORTSMOUTH, VA — When a family residence was disturbed in the middle of the night by men dressed in black rattling doorknobs and aiming red laser sights in the window, a homeowner did what he felt necessary to defend his family. While harming no one, the man’s act of self-defense with a firearm landed him with charges of firing at police officers and put on trial.
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Brandon Watson of Portsmouth was watching television late at night when his wife alerted him of intruders on their property on January 3, 2013. The events of that evening would turn their lives upside down.
“Oh my gosh, someone is in the backyard,” Mrs. Watson told her husband.
When the couple heard the back doorknob jiggle, they ran upstairs for cover. Through a window they could see men dressed in dark clothing prowling around their back yard. Mr. Watson said that he could not locate his cell phone to call 9-1-1, so he picked up his pistol and waited at the foot of the staircase, ready to fend off the intruders.
“I announced myself, ‘Who is that? Who is that? I have a gun.’ And as soon as I said that, two red laser beams were on my chest,” Mr. Watson told WAVY. “So I looked at the red laser beams on my chest, and I fired a warning shot.”
Mr. Watson’s single warning shot went through a glass pane in his door but did not strike anyone. He soon discovered the intruders were actually police officers and found himself under arrest. Unbeknownst to him, cops were creeping around his back yard in response to a neighbor’s call regarding suspicious noises outside.
Instead of knocking on Watson’s front door and checking on the family face-to-face, officers took the covert route and made themselves indistinguishable from prowlers. They advanced their blunder by illogically aiming guns into the home — causing the homeowner imminent fear of death.
“You come in my backyard, try to open my door, open my window and flash red laser beams on my chest because you thought I was the burglar, and I thought you were the burglar,” Watson said in a media interview.
Police officers are given broad discretion in using their guns to defend themselves. Even a hint of a suspect reaching for a weapon (real or perceived) can result in an officially-justified police shooting. An officer being painted with a laser sight would have justified a self-defense shoot under any conceivable circumstance. Yet Mr. Watson was afforded no such leniency. For defending himself, he was charged with a crime: reckless handling of a firearm.
Mr. Watson begged for the charges to be dropped, as the situation had been a giant misunderstanding. Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle Mobley refused, and the malicious prosecution went forward. Watson subsequently lost his job and faced 10 months of costly legal struggles.
When Watson’s case went before a judge, he was found guilty of a Class 1 Misdemeanor. He faced up to 12 months in jail, but was spared when an appellate judge declared there had been a mistrial.
In his second bout with the justice system, Mr. Watson requested a jury trial. His fate was left to seven jurors who had to decide if his actions were actually criminal. After only 47 minutes of deliberation they declared he was not guilty, to the chagrin of local police and prosecutors.
The jury cited the police officers contradictory accounts about their weapons handling, the understandable confusion inside the home, and the malicious prosecution of the defendant.
Common sense managed to save a man from baseless imprisonment, but the ordeal still caused a great injustice upon the Watson family. He is expected to file a civil lawsuit against the city.
Watch Brandon Watson’s interview with WAVY-TV: