Darius Simmons Case Tests Wisconsin’s Castle Doctrine Like Trayvon Martin Does Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law by Thomas Martin Sobottke


Pursuing a Milwaukee boy he knew had invaded his home, burgled it, and taken four guns worth thousands of dollars, the homeowner, John H. Spooner, confronted the prime suspect, 13-year-old Darius Simmons, and when the boy denied his criminality shot him once in the chest at close range. Simmons then attempted to flee the scene and Spooner shot him again aiming for the back. A third round was fired. Simmons was found just around the corner on his face dead, just ten feet from a community park.

Milwaukee Police had already executed a search warrant and searched the neighboring home of Simmons’s mother, Patricia Larry, and found no stolen property. Following the shooting, police executed a second more comprehensive search finding no stolen property. Of course, Mrs. Larry could have assisted her sons in fencing the items. An older brother was taken into custody for having outstanding truancy tickets related to non-attendance at school. Police are still investigating.

The shooter, John H. Spooner, has been charged by the Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office with First Degree Intentional Homicide. Spooner and his attorneys are claiming self-defense under Wisconsin’s new Castle Doctrine Law that permits private citizens to use deadly force if someone enters their property and poses a threat. Spooner acted on just such an assumption.

Franklyn Gimbel , Spooner’s chief defense counsel, told the Wisconsin-Journal Sentinel that he would mount a vigorous defense of his client, and that there would be no plea deals whatsoever. Gimbel is confident the facts will show his client acted in self-defense, defending his person and his property as Wisconsin’s new Castle Doctrine Law allows. Spooner, aged 75, is a long-time resident of the neighborhood with no criminal record. His wife died in 2004 and his home has been repeatedly invaded by burglars to the point where Spooner had to erect surveillance cameras around his property.

No doubt, film from those cameras will show Simmons entering the property and making off with the guns. Otherwise, Spooner’s defense lawyers would not be mounting such a vigorous defense. Milwaukee Police executed not one, but two searches of the Larry home. Probable cause must exist for both of those searches. Patricia Larry suspiciously moved into the neighborhood in the home next to Spooner’s just a month before the crime that had so incensed Mr. Spooner and pointed to his 13-year-old son Darius, who was a Sixth Grader at the nearby Gaenslen School. Simmons is the 10th Milwaukee Public School student to die this school year, the eighth by violent means.

But there are some problems with this rosy scenario of a homeowner bravely defending his life and his home against an invader.

First, the threat was not immediate enough to interrupt the defendant’s going out to breakfast beforehand with Milwaukee City Alderman Bob Donovan. Over breakfast that morning, Spooner complained about burglaries in his neighborhood and said that “there are other ways to deal with situations.” Donovan later told reporters “You know, it was part of a half-hour conversation. But in retrospect you begin to wonder.”

Second, 13-year-old Darius Simmons was engaged in the highly suspicious activity of recovering the family’s empty trashcan from the curb in front of the Larry home and not Spooner’s in broad daylight about 10 A.M. May 31st. This would require Spooner to leave his home, and exit his property to either a public sidewalk or the Larry home’s property. Hot pursuit could not be claimed here as the man had had a leisurely breakfast and visit with his city alderman earlier that morning.

Third, Mrs. Patricia Larry, the mother of Darius Simmons, the decedent and prime burglary suspect, came out on her porch and firmly asked Mr. Spooner to go back to his home. She obviously saw the man’s anger and heard what the argument was about. Spooner instead produced a pistol and shot Simmons in the chest at close range right in front of his mother. Darius Simmons then fled down the street with Spooner shooting twice more. Defense attorneys will claim that Simmons’ flight shows consciousness of guilt in the matter but he could just as easily have run out of fright, and the wish to avoid being shot again at close range. He could even have sensed that his mother was at risk and that Spooner would be diverted by his flight. These things will be central at trial.

Fourth, Patricia Larry, Darius Simmons, who we can safely call the victim since he is the only person injured in the incident, and the older brother, were all unarmed that day. No firearms were discovered in the Larry home or premises at all in either police search.

Fifth, Spooner was an aging white man while his neighborhood had been changing in recent years to one of color. It is not known if some sort of racial feeling could have led Spooner to suspect the Larry family more easily than if a white family lived next door.

All of this is intensely personal to me. Back in 1968 in Clarendon Hills, Illinois I was studying my Lutheran Catechism on a Friday night in the bedroom I shared with my brother Dave in preparation for a Saturday morning class. It was some time after eight in the evening. My mother was watching Judd for the Defense on television and I listened to parts of it as I had really wanted to watch TV instead of having Martin Luther tell me repeatedly that “this is most certainly true.”

My brother Dave and his friend Rickey were shooting hoops in the driveway with the aid of a big outdoor lamp we owned and used so we could play after dark. It was an early spring night. My father was working at the lab on some problem or other late that night. His boss had moved him, a research chemist, to the blue collar night shift. My Dad put up with it. He got on well with the people on the factory floor. And he could even help get at those things that sometimes went wrong in the tin plating and coating business he worked for in downtown Chicago.

The back doorbell rang. My mother asked me to answer the door figuring it was one of my friends or Dave’s come to play and she wanted to finish the show on TV. I figured the same and answered the door.

To my great surprise it was our next-door neighbor Dad and he very gruffly said “Where’s your Dad!” He had a mean look of deep-seated anger on his face. It was then I noticed he held what looked to me like a .38 pistol in his hands and I assumed it was loaded. For what he told me afterward confirmed that he was intending to have it out with Dad and “settle this once and for all.”

It was a bizarre two to three minutes I spent listening to his tirade. There was nothing but an unlocked screen door between me and him; between him and my own mother who like me was unarmed. We had no guns in the entire house and I had not bothered to bring a baseball bat or some other blunt instrument to answer our door. People in our neighborhood were unaccustomed to answering the door with the need to kill in self-defense.

I decided to respond with kindness to the neighbor and tell him the truth: my Dad was not at home but at work late. That he would contact him as soon as he got home and I would tell my mother right away.

I also vouched for my brother Dave and his friend Rickey who had been shooting hoops without interruption all night. I had looked often out my bedroom window from my bed and saw them there and the sound of the ball bouncing on the pavement of our driveway uninterrupted.

What the man was willing to use deadly force over was that someone had knocked on his basement window earlier that evening and had run away. I knew I had not done so. It was just possible Dave and Rickey had but I did not think so. I told the man so and why I thought so with as helpful a tone of voice as I could get out of my throat which seemed to have suddenly closed right up. I felt a bit of wetness in my underpants. Yea, I peed. What a wuss! It might have had something to do with the fact I thought he would make a move to enter our home, and kill my mother. I was not going to let that happen. That will have you wetting your pants in a hurry. But I was a kid who had just turned fourteen. Darius Simmons was thirteen. My brother Dave and his friend Rickey were both twelve years old and on the cusp of teenager status.

Finally, he turned and left in a huff promising that he would “get your Dad once and for all.”

I struggled to go up the back stairs of our little home and through our kitchen to the living room where my mother watched TV. She asked who it was and I told her. The words just came tumbling out. She called the police and soon there were a pair of squad cars out in front of the neighbor’s home. They were there talking with its occupants for a couple of hours. They then left without talking to my mom or me at all, taking anything from the neighbor’s home, searching it, or making any arrest.

I guess it’s OK to pull a loaded pistol on a fourteen-year-old boy and threaten to kill his Dad and who knows who else. Probably, they had correctly decided to simply have a talk with the neighbor Dad and help him see that this was not how to settle a score. I don’t know if anything happened outside of my own hearing. I don’t think so.

So I have a personal perspective on the Castle Defense Law the State of Wisconsin has in place now. I have a very personal connection with the Trayvon Martin’s of this world. Already, Trayvon Martin is the perpetrator in the case and Zimmerman is the victim. The whole trial will revolve around the Zimmerman defense attorneys making young Trayvon Martin a drug-infested monster roaming the neighborhood that night and Zimmerman the white knight who avenged the great crime wave. Zimmerman will be out and a free man later this year. Martin is free too only with his Creator.

Now a 13-year-old boy is dead. His name is Darius Simmons. He was unarmed. There was no immediate criminal act in progress when he was shot. He had no criminal record. The family had only been there to conduct its own crime wave for a month. Most criminals require a bit more time to pick their victims. What if the Larry family was just a single mom with two sons, one of whom did not like to go to school and there was nothing more to it?

The State of Wisconsin and the nation, going back to English common law many centuries ago, has given plenty of room for self-defense of one’s person and property. Here it seems Mr. Spooner was quite aware of the Castle Doctrine and it may have given him license to kill. In Texas, a man cited his state’s new version of the Castle Doctrine when he was on the phone with police. He went over next door where a neighbor’s house was being burgled and shot the two men dead. Burglary does not carry the death penalty in any state. The police were en-route. The man gleefully left his home and killed two other people. We all know about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

Under the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground Laws, only the shooter has protection. Unarmed targets of their gunfire do not. That is a problem. There might be cases where the decedents in these cases had a right to stand their ground too.

In my case, it turned out to be two kids living one door up from us who were the guilty parties. They were our age and had gone out on a prank and knocked on the man’s window as he had done some upholstery work in his basement. It was a part-time business with him. If my Dad had been home I can tell you he would have been dead. Probably me too. I would have tried to stop him. And he would have under today’s law been acting in self-defense. A knock on a piece of glass window with the glass undamaged by two children as a prank would justify murder.

I’m not exaggerating. I grew up knowing this family next door. His Dad would have most certainly killed mine, and anyone who tried to get in his way. I’ve always wondered why the police did absolutely nothing about the case. Where were my constitutional rights? I asked my mother about this repeatedly in the days afterward but she said to simply forget about it. But I was frightened to death that night and every detail is etched into my memory after forty and more years.

Thankfully, my brother Dave and his friend heard little of the exchange between me and the gunman at the back door. He went back over next door quickly. I seem to remember my mother and brother being incredulous at what happened. I do not think Dave even believed what had happened. It was all too real to me. It was not my imagination. Even my active imagination and high degree of creativity could not have conjured this up.

So yes, I have a very real sympathy for young men who die at the hands of vigilantes. OK, so I’m not Catholic and I am going to hell anyway for studying Luther’s Catechism. It is suspicious behavior after all. And my mom was probably trying to find a good lawyer by watching Judd for the Defense that night. And my brother and his friend had no right to shoot hoops early one evening in our own driveway. No, the two were not wearing hoodies. Neither was I. Though I had wet my pants when it was done. I didn’t mind somehow. I think I was just glad to be alive, and to have two parents who were still there for me.

Is murder even possible under these new Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground Laws? Can the shooter or attacker acting in supposed self-defense traverse any amount of ground and act at any time after the supposed threat? Are these laws complete cover for any murder a citizen wishes to commit? Making it a threat to property or personal safety could jusitfy any homocide. What do you think?

For my money, I am standing with Darius Simmons and Trayvon Martin even should it be found that Simmons did commit burglary earlier, and Martin had worn a hoodie and used Marijuana in the thirty days prior to his death. A kid should have a chance to grow up and not be shot down like a dog.

Gun owners will say prosecuting Zimmerman or Spooner violates their Second Amendment Civil Rights. But we do have police to arrest lawbreakers who are unarmed and who have not committed property crimes that carry the death penalty. And killing a kid is not exactly heroic Mr. Spooner. I think you could have made a citizen’s arrest and called for police.

What do you think? Let’s hear from you. Shooting kids down like dogs who are unarmed and have done nothing to harm anyone must be wrong. Or is it right? Tell me. I want to know your thoughts.

Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
for Struggles for Justice

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