Shooting of burglars in Texas draws debate

Email|Print| Text size + By Miguel Bustillo
Los Angeles Times / November 27, 2007

PASADENA, Texas - When he saw two men pry into his neighbor's house with a crowbar earlier this month, Joe Horn did what many people would do: He called 911.

But when police had not shown up by the time the suspects were about to leave, the 61-year-old retiree did something most people probably would not: He put down the phone, stepped outside with his shotgun, and killed them.

"I'm not going to let them get away with this," Horn told the 911 dispatcher, who responded: "Property's not worth killing someone over."

Seconds later, the sound of a gun being loaded was captured on the 911 tape, followed by the warning: "Move [and] you're dead," and then three bursts of gunfire.

Miguel DeJesus, 38, and Diego Ortiz, 30, died from their wounds. Both had small-time criminal histories.

The recording of Horn's anger, frustration, and eagerness to take the law into his own hands has made him the focus of a national controversy.

Critics condemn him as a vigilante bent on meting out murderous justice. Admirers praise him as a courageous hero whom any law abider would love to have next door.

"Why is he still a free man?" Linda E. Edwards wrote in a letter to The Houston Chronicle.

"Joe Horn gets a Texas 'attaboy' from me," countered John E. Meagher in the next letter on the page, adding: "Justice was served, law or not."

As the debate rages on talk radio and cable news shows, Horn remains free.

However, according to his attorney, he is so overwrought with grief and overwhelmed by the media glare that he's left his home in this blue-collar Houston suburb, best known as the former home of Gilley's, the honky-tonk bar immortalized in the movie "Urban Cowboy."

"Joe has never been anything but a gentle person. He's not the type of monster that they are making him out to be," attorney Tom Lambright said in an interview with Houston radio host Michael Berry, who was playing a spoof of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" called "I Shot the Burglar."

Lambright did not return requests for comment.

Authorities are still investigating what happened Nov. 14, but they plan to let a Harris County grand jury decide whether Horn, a former computer consultant, should be charged with any crimes.

"This is not an individual who stepped outside and gunned down two pedestrians on the sidewalk," said Pasadena police Captain A.H. "Bud" Corbett. "In a situation where there is some uncertainty about which side of the law someone was on, the best thing to do is assemble all the information and present it to the grand jury."

Noting Texans' prevailing populist views on guns and self-defense - and the sharply mixed reaction to what Horn did - legal analysts differ over whether a jury of his peers would ever indict him. They also differ on whether one should, given a Texas law known as the "castle doctrine" that permits citizens to use deadly force to defend their homes and cars.

Tommy LaFon, a Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor who has argued about 50 disputed shooting cases before grand juries, said Horn's lawyers may be able to assert that his actions were legal because he was acting as the de facto defender of his neighbor's property.

"He's not drunk at a bar somewhere, he's a guy who intercedes in a situation next door," LaFon said. "If a jury believes he was standing in the shoes of the owner, that might affect their decision."

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