By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
It’s now up to the state Court of Appeals to decide whether to uphold the manslaughter conviction of Lovett Chambers for shooting and killing Travis Hood by Morgan Junction Park in January 2012.
Three Court of Appeals, Division 1 judges and two lawyers – neither of whom were on the original defense/prosecution teams – spent 21 minutes on the case in the COA’s Downtown Seattle chambers this morning.
Chambers was charged with murder while contending self-defense; a King County Superior Court jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter in April 2014 (during which the file photo at left was taken – he was not at today’s hearing), and he is serving an 11 1/2-year sentence.
While his appeal brief (read it here) argues seven points, this morning’s arguments focused on just the first one: The claim that the jury should not have received an instruction about finding him guilty of manslaughter.
He shot to kill, his lawyer David B. Koch argued.
“All the evidence established that Mr. Chambers intentionally shot Mr. Hood intending to kill him.” That included Chambers’ experience with guns, and that he fired three times “when facing the threat of deadly force from a shovel that Mr. Hood was holding. If you look at the state’s arguments, it’s obvious they also thought it was an intentional killing. The notion this was merely manslaughter was an afterthought … and there was nothing to support (that conclusion), that it was anything but intentional.”
While Koch cited another case, he was asked by Judge Ann Schindler about the fact that Chambers had had a significant amount to drink that night. Yes, Koch said, but “there was no substantial evidence shown that he was unable to form the intent to kill.”
Schindler then asked about the distance between Hood and Chambers at the time the shots were fired. About 10 feet, Koch replied, acknowledging that Hood’s friend Jamie Vause, a major witness, offered varying distances, possibly a few feet closer. But, Koch said, “Mr. Vause was very clear that at the time of the shooting, Mr. Hood still had the shovel in his hands … It’s true Vause said Mr. Hood seemed to be turning to get back into the pickup truck … (but) he’s still holding the deadly weapon … all happening very quickly.”
“Did the forensic evidence shed any light on the time involved?” asked Judge James Verellen. Koch replied that the medical examiner was unable to determine the timing (but) “witnesses who were there said it all happened very fast, boom boom boom.”
Next, for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Dennis J. McCurdy declared that manslaughter was “properly put before the jury.” Judge Schindler asked what evidence supported manslaughter. Citing case law, McCurdy contended, “if a defendant believes (they’re in) imminent danger but acts in self-defense, you’re entitled to a manslaughter instruction.” His subsequent points looked at whether it was “reckless” for Chambers to have fired multiple shots. “Mr. Hood held a shovel that was 4’10” long – Vause’s testimony (was) that after Hood picked up the shovel and got into a ‘batter stance,’ the defendant jumped back, up to 10 feet away. So if he swung (the shovel), he’s going to miss him by a minimum of five feet.”
McCurdy said evidence had shown that Hood was in the pickup truck’s doorway (parked alongside Morgan Junction), its door open, holding the shovel “in a righty stance” (which he mimicked) – “Two shots are square in his back; the other goes into his left chest, under the skin, and into his left arm, which means he’s the opposite way around. Mr. Vause testified that as soon as Hood saw the gun, he spun and tried to get into the truck. That’s consistent with the medical examiner’s analysis of the wound – if he was still in a batter stance, that shot can’t occur. Those things support a ‘reckless’ instruction – the defendant was not in immediate harm when he stepped back 10 feet – he could have done a lot of other things, (just) pointed the gun, fired a warning shot – Hood didn’t have a gun, he’s got this unwieldy shovel – those are all possibilities. The Supreme Court said it is appropriate to let the jury make that decision.”
Judge Stephen Dwyer asked if there was any way to know whether the two shots to Hood’s back could have been the first two fired. McCurdy said it was not likely.
Along the way, McCurdy mentioned that PTSD had been part of Chambers’ defense. Judge Schindler asked how that factored into self-defense. Replied McCurdy, “One of the things the jury could look at – (Chamber) knew these things about himself – he testified about where he sits (in public), that he always wants to see the door, he said his life revolved around his fear of other people … (But before the shooting) he has a .45 semiautomatic and a phone (in his car parked nearby), but he gets out of the car, doesn’t yell for help, doesn’t call 911, doesn’t go back into (the Feedback Lounge, where he and the other two men had been, separately, beforehand), takes really irrational actions … and with the defendant knowing all these things about himself, the jury is entitled to decide whether reckless or not.”
Koch had saved two of his 10 minutes for rebuttal, which followed. “The state’s position is that Chambers wasn’t facing a threat because of the distance, but Mr. Hood had just thrown around the N-word, he could have thrown the shovel, could have taken one step forward … what distinguishes this case is that we have this confirmation of the deadly threat that persists throughout the time the shooting occurred.” (The mention of “the N-word” was the only time racism was referred to in this hearing; it had played a major role in the case, “at the core of it” as one of Chambers’ lawyers had said the day he was sentenced. The defense had contended that the victim and his friend were hurling racial slurs, while the friend, Vause, contended it was a variant of the N-word that they used for each other, both white.)
Back to today’s hearing: Koch contended that PTSD had no role in the self-defense case, and noted that the defense even told jurors that.
So why was it brought up at all? Judge Schindler asked. Reply: To explain why Chambers didn’t recall everything that happened that night, and to explain why he had reacted the way he did to homicide detectives.
With that, the time was up, and the court moved on to its next case. They don’t make statements about what will happen next, but when we covered arguments in the same courtroom, in a non-criminal West Seattle case, seven years ago, the ruling was released six months after the oral arguments. So we’ll be watching. Whatever the ruling is, if it’s challenged, the next stop would be the state Supreme Court, which can decide whether to take a case or not.