Texas man cleared of shooting burglars
Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 9:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 9:31 a.m.
HOUSTON – Ever since he fatally shot two men he suspected of burglarizing his next-door neighbor's home, 62-year-old Joe Horn has been both praised and vilified for his actions.
Horn called 911 and told the dispatcher he had a shotgun and was going to kill the intruders. The dispatcher pleaded with him not to go outside, but a defiant Horn confronted the men with a 12-gauge shotgun and shot both in the back.
Some community activists wanted Horn to face charges for the deaths. Supporters of the retired grandfather said what he did was justified under the law.
After listening to evidence in the case, including testimony from Horn himself, a grand jury on Monday cleared him of the shootings.
"He wasn't acting like a vigilante. He didn't want to do it," said Tom Lambright, Horn's attorney.
Lambright said Horn was not a "wild cowboy" who took the law into his own hands after he saw the two suspected burglars, with bags in hand, crawling out of windows from his neighbor's home on Nov. 14 in the Houston suburb of Pasadena. The neighbor was out of town at the time.
Instead, Horn was a frightened retiree who tried to defend his neighbor's property and when the two men came onto his yard and threatened him, Horn defended himself, Lambright said.
"He was scared. He was in fear of his life," he said.
Grand jurors had to consider two issues in the case: the intentional killing of another person and whether the killing was justified either by self-defense or the defense of property, Harris County District Attorney Kenneth Magidson told reporters.
"I understand the concerns of some in the community regarding Mr. Horn's conduct," Magidson said. "The grand jury concluded that Mr. Horn's use of deadly force did not rise to a criminal offense."
Texas law allows people to use deadly force to protect themselves if it is reasonable to believe they are in mortal danger. In limited circumstances, people also can use deadly force to protect their neighbor's property; for example, if a homeowner asks a neighbor to watch over his property while he's out of town. It's not clear whether the neighbor whose home was burglarized asked Horn to watch over his house.
Frank Ortiz, a member of the local League of United Latin American Citizens chapter, said he hopes federal authorities investigate the case further.
"That's amazing that they would no-bill him with so much evidence against him," Ortiz told the Houston Chronicle in Monday's online edition. "This was no more than a vigilante."
Horn did not speak with reporters on Monday.
A large red sign with the words "No Trespass" on it blocked the path to his front door and a handwritten sign on the door said "Please no media," ''No Trespassing" and "Do not knock or ring bell." A couple of neighbors also had signs on their doors asking media to leave them alone.
A few police cars patrolled the area near Horn's home.
The two suspected burglars, Hernando Riascos Torres, 38, and Diego Ortiz, 30, were unemployed illegal immigrants from Colombia. Torres was deported to Colombia in 1999 after a 1994 cocaine-related conviction.
The city of Pasadena, where protesters and defenders of Horn engaged in counter-demonstrations, pledged to keep its police force staffed enough to protect its citizens.
Keith Hampton, a Houston attorney not connected with the case, said he didn't expect Horn to be indicted. "This is a real conservative county," he said. "A lot of folks in Houston and Harris County are saying this man was doing a good thing."
In the 911 call, a dispatcher urges Horn to stay inside his house and not risk lives.
"Don't go outside the house," the 911 operator pleaded. "You're going to get yourself shot if you go outside that house with a gun. I don't care what you think."
"You want to make a bet?" Horn answered. "I'm going to kill them."
After the shooting, he redialed 911.
"I had no choice," he said, his voice shaking. "They came in the front yard with me, man. I had no choice. Get somebody over here quick."
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