How will legal system look at group who stoned a gunman in Fort Worth? Experts weigh in

The people who stoned a man to death as he opened fired on them are unlikely to face charges, according to legal experts, because their actions appear to fit within all the legal parameters of self-defense.

Partygoers chased a gunman and hurled landscaping bricks at him after he shot at least one person at a party Monday in west Fort Worth, police said. As the gunman fell or was overtaken by the group, he kept firing and hit at least three people. One of the shooting victims died at the scene, police said.

The gunman has been identified as Miguel Chavez, 42, of Fort Worth, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner. The office identified the shooting victim as Joel Pocasangre Garay, 36, whose hometown was not listed.

Police said no charges have been filed.

Law professors and defense attorneys who spoke to the Star-Telegram agreed charges are unlikely because the stoning seems to be a clear case of self-defense. Self-defense claims are not always so cut and dried — the timing, force used and forethought behind one’s actions can all contribute to a self-defense case.

Self-defense law

Defense attorney Benson Varghese with Varghese Summersett PLLC said based on what police have released about the shooting and stoning, those who threw bricks at Chavez are protected under state law.

“You are allowed under Texas law to use deadly force to protect yourself,” Varghese said. “So whether they are being shot at or their group is being shot at, then self-defense or self-defense of third party would apply in this situation.”

Texas law stipulates that a person is justified to use force against another person when they reasonably believe that force is necessary to protect themselves or others. Even if a person did not think they were going to be shot, they probably still are legally protected, said Michael Benza, a criminal law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Self-defense of a third party applies when someone might not feel personally threatened, but they are afraid for another person’s safety. This applies in the shooting case, Benza said, because the gunman was firing into a group of people.

“You could also have both,” Benza said about self-defense and self-defense of a third party claims. “Like if I was afraid he was going to shoot me and also shoot my girlfriend.”

There are other nuances to a self-defense claim. For example, the amount of force both parties use can come into play legally if the force was not equal.

A person generally can protect themselves against a threat using comparable force, said Rebekah Perlstein, a defense attorney with Scott H. Palmer, P.C. That means a self-defense claim might not apply if a person uses more force against a person than was initially used against them. If someone pushes another person, for example, and the person responds with gunfire, a self-defense claim might be more complicated.

“Self-defense is kind of specific in that you can exert as much force as is being used upon you,” Perlstein said.

In this case, the group responded to deadly force with deadly force.

Self-defense is also dependent on the timing of the force used. For example, if a person attacks someone after the threat has ended, a prosecutor might not accept a self-defense claim. This is common in “vigilante justice” cases, said Huyen Pham, a law professor and associate dean at Texas A&M University.

That does not appear to be the situation in this case since the gunman, according to police, continued to fire and even hit someone in the group as he ran from the crowd and was hit by bricks.

“What is distinguished in this case,” Pham said, “is it seems like the threat was ongoing.”

The “spontaneous” nature of the stoning also strengthens the self-defense claim for the group, Pham said. Those in the crowd acted collectively and immediately to a threat that was happening to them in the moment. There was no time for deliberation or for someone to premeditate the force they used.

“They’re throwing whatever is available,” she said, referring to the fact that the group used bricks, according to police. “The weapon that was used, the fact that there was a group of them; it feels very spontaneous and that strengthens their claim for self-defense.”

A grand jury may still have to formally dismiss any potential charges against the group, even though the actions were in self-defense.

For example, a grand jury heard the case of a volunteer church security guard who fatally shot a gunman after he opened fire during a church service in White Settlement in 2019, killing two people. The grand jury declined to take action against Wilson.