Conviction tossed for man who shot tire, claims self defense
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — An appeals court on Tuesday threw out a former paratrooper’s conviction for shooting another driver’s tire on a North Carolina highway, ruling his self-defense rights weren’t properly explained to jurors.
A three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled unanimously to order a new trial for Charles Ayers, who had been convicted of firing into an occupied vehicle and damaging property.
The appeals court found that the trial judge should have instructed jurors that Ayers had a right to defend himself during the 2015 traffic confrontation. The 50-year-old Army veteran argued he feared for his safety after another driver tailgated him and appeared to be trying to force him off the road; the other driver told investigators Ayers was blocking him from passing.
But Ayers “was present in a location he lawfully had a right to be: driving inside his vehicle upon a public highway,” Judge John Tyson wrote in the panel’s opinion. “Defendant was under no legal obligation to stop, pull off the road, veer from his lane of travel, or to engage his brakes and risk endangering himself.”
State law says people can defend themselves with deadly force if they reasonably fear significant harm or death anywhere that they have a legal right to be. North Carolina is among half of U.S. states with laws that say someone has doesn’t have to retreat if they’re attacked somewhere they are lawfully present, an expansion on the traditional legal right to defend one’s home from attack.
The confrontation occurred in January 2015 after Ayers had spent all day at a Durham Veterans Administration hospital for treatment of pain related to a past injury during a training parachute jump. He was driving home to neighboring Wake County on a dark, meandering highway amid a cold drizzle and winter weather forecasts.
He testified that a pickup truck pulled behind him, often driving within feet of his bumper, despite others generally driving slowly. The pickup tried unsuccessfully to get around him twice because of the road’s winding nature, Ayers said, but later had a clear chance to pass on a downhill stretch with no oncoming traffic.
Instead the truck pulled alongside him and swerved toward him, Ayers testified, forcing him to drive with his right wheels in the muddy shoulder. It was then that Ayers said he put his window down and reached for a revolver.
“I knew that I was going to lose control of my car in the next second or two. I basically had no more time left to make a decision. I didn’t want to hurt him,” he testified. “I said, “Well you know what? I’ve got a tool in my hand. I don’t have to hurt the guy. I can just disable the vehicle.’”
The other driver, registered nurse Timothy Parker, was driving home from work at the time. He told an investigator he was trying to pass Ayers when he heard a pop and saw his tire pressure light come on. He then pulled safely into a median and wrote down Ayers’ license plate.
During the 2016 trial, the judge declined a defense request to instruct jurors on Ayers’ right to defend himself. The jury found him guilty of the two charges, and he was sentenced to three years’ supervised probation.
However, the appeals court found that “the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that Defendant had no duty to retreat.” The judges said a new jury, given the proper instructions, should determine whether Ayers’ use of force “was reasonable or excessive.”
Neither Parker nor a lawyer for Ayers, Sean Vitrano, immediately responded to messages seeking comment Tuesday. A working phone listing for Ayers couldn’t be found.
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