DA, defense both displeased with involuntary manslaughter verdict in retrial of Erie shooting

·9 min read

More than a year ago, a mistrial in the homicide case against Derrick A. Feidler left both the Erie County District Attorney's Office and the defense disappointed. The prosecution was hoping for a conviction and the defense for an acquittal.

Feidler was convicted on Wednesday at his retrial.

The verdict left both the prosecution and defense disappointed once more.

Feidler, 37, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The jury said he he acted unlawfully and recklessly by fatally shooting a friend's acquaintance, Jose Arenas Jr., in the driveway of Feidler's West 35th Street house in November 2019.

The District Attorney's Office wanted a conviction for first-degree murder, arguing that Feidler intended to kill Arenas and was unjustified in doing so.

The defense argued that Feidler was not guilty, saying he acted in self-defense.

"We are disappointed," one of Feidler's lawyers, Gene Placidi, said after the verdict. "We wanted an acquittal."

The lead prosecutor, First Assistant District Attorney Jessica Reger, said her office respected the jury's verdict but would have liked a different outcome.

"We still believe a murder charge was appropriate in this case," she said.

Feidler used a hunting rifle to shoot Arenas, 38, outside Feidler's house in the 1400 block of West 35th Street, near Melrose Avenue, around 6:15 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2019.

A jury of nine women and three men found him guilty after deliberating a little over eight hours over two days and delivering the verdict around 4:15 p.m. Wednesday in the courtroom of Erie County Judge Daniel Brabender. Testimony in the retrial lasted a week.

One of the jurors was crying as she exited the jury box and left the courtroom.

Involuntary manslaughter is an unlawful killing that is the result of recklessness or negligence. It is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of five years in state prison.

Back to court:New jury faces same question in Erie homicide retrial: Murder or self-defense?

Feidler was also convicted of three counts of recklessly endangering another person, a second-degree misdemeanor. Those charges pertained to the danger the prosecution said Feidler's gunshot posed to Arenas and the two other people who were nearest the incident — Feidler's 10-year-old daughter and his friend.

Brabender set sentencing for Aug. 15 and allowed Feidler to remain free on bond.

Two trials, same charges

Feidler hugged his lawyers after the verdict and had tears in his eyes. In brief remarks to Brabender, he said he respected the jury's verdict and wanted to address Arenas' family in the courtroom. Brabender told Feidler he could make those remarks at his sentencing.

The Erie County Courthouse, the site of the homicide trial and retrial of Derrick A. Feidler.
The Erie County Courthouse, the site of the homicide trial and retrial of Derrick A. Feidler.

Feidler's first trial ended with a hung jury. Brabender declared a mistrial in April 2021, finding the jury at that trial was hopelessly deadlocked after failing to reach a verdict following 14 hours of deliberations over three days.

The District Attorney's Office after the first trial said it would retry Feidler.

In addition to seeking a conviction for first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence with no parole, the District Attorneys Office sought alternative convictions for third-degree murder, an unlawful killing with malice; or voluntary manslaughter, an unlawful killing based on a sudden provocation or the defendant's mistaken belief that deadly force was needed to respond to a situation.

The prosecution did not press for a conviction for involuntary manslaughter. Brabender included that charge in his jury instructions along with instructions for first- and third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

Feidler did not testify at the trial or retrial. He gave a statement to the Erie police in which he said he used the hunting rifle to fatally shoot Arenas.

As the undisputed evidence showed, Feidler shot Arenas once from Feidler's front porch as Arenas was helping Feidler's former housemate load tires into the former housemate's car at the front of Feidler's driveway.

The bullet from Feidler's .308 hunting rifle, equipped with a scope, shattered the window of the former housemate's car before striking Arenas in the chest.

Dueling arguments

Feidler did not know Arenas. The defense argued that Feidler was justified in firing the fatal shot because Arenas was the aggressor, and moments earlier had pulled out a knife during a brief altercation with Feidler on the side of Feidler's house. Feidler's lawyers at the retrial, Placidi and Peter Sala, argued that Feidler feared for his safety and the safety of his wife and two young children after Arenas "viciously attacked" Feidler during the brief fight.

First trial:Prosecutors, defense point at different aggressors in trial of Erie man in fatal shooting

The prosecutors, Reger and Assistant District Attorney Molly Anglin, argued at the first trial and the retrial that the shooting was murder rather than self-defense and that Feidler was the aggressor. They said Arenas — whose last words were "Don't shoot" — was not a danger to Feidler or his family, and that Feidler had mistaken Arenas' cell phone for a knife.

The events immediately preceding the shooting were critical to the prosecution's contention that Feidler acted with intent and was unjustified in killing Arenas. The prosecution challenged the defense's assertion that Feidler had no choice but to fire the rifle.

Hung jury:Mistrial declared in case of Erie fatal shooting; jurors unable to reach verdict

Restarting a case:DA to retry case of 2019 Erie fatal shooting after hung jury led to mistrial

Undisputed evidence showed that, after Feidler and Arenas fought, Feidler went inside his house using the side door, unlocked a gun safe, took the rifle out of the case, loaded it, walked to the front of the house, kicked open the front door and fired at Arenas, who was behind the car of Feidler's former housemate.

"When the defendant killed Jose, he had many other alternatives," Reger told the jury at the start of the trial. "He did not have to kill Jose."

Placidi, in his opening remarks, told the jury that Feidler "had the right to meet deadly force with deadly force."

After the verdict, Placidi said Feidler had been "terrified."

Daughter as a witness

At the time of the shooting, Feidler's 10-year-old daughter was outside the house with Feidler's wife, who was also holding their 2-year-old child on her hip. The defense argued that Arenas was also a threat to Feidler's wife and children, while the prosecution argued that their staying outside, rather than going inside, showed that Arenas was not a threat.

Though Feidler did not testify, his daughter, now 12, took the stand for the defense. She recounted what she said she remembered about the events before and after the shooting. She said she was frightened of Arenas, who she said had a knife.

Explaining why she was afraid, the daughter testified, "Because knives can hurt you, especially when someone is angry."

The daughter said she was not scared when her father showed up with the rifle.

"I felt like he was protecting me," she said.

Origins of dispute unclear

The reason for the ill will between Feidler and Arenas was uncertain, based on the trial testimony. The defense argued that Feidler believed Arenas was a danger and did not want him at his house.

Reger described Feidler to the jury as "controlling." "By his own account, he is paranoid," she said, adding, "Derrick was in a mood" before the killing, and she said he did not like strangers in his house.

Erie County Judge Daniel Brabender presided over the trial and retrial of the homicide case against Derrick A. Feidler.
Erie County Judge Daniel Brabender presided over the trial and retrial of the homicide case against Derrick A. Feidler.

Arenas, according to the evidence, had shown up with Feidler's close friend, Joshua Schneider, who had until recently been living with Feidler and Feidler's wife and children. Arenas and Schneider were there to retrieve Schneider's belongings, including four tires that were in Feidler's garage.

As Schneider and Arenas were talking to Feidler's wife, Reger said, Feidler, pulled into the driveway as he came home from his job installing and repairing heating and ventilation units. Feidler blocked Schneider's car, and said he did not want Arenas at the house. Reger said Feidler had also told Schneider not to talk to Feidler's wife.

Reger said Feidler mumbled something to Arenas before Arenas responded, "You got a problem?" and the two squared off to fight. Feidler told Schneider that Arenas had a knife, Reger said, and Schneider stepped in between the two and broke up the fight.

Feidler then went inside and got the rifle.

From first trial:Knife found months after fatal shooting playing key role in Erie man's homicide trial

The defense insisted that Arenas had a knife during the episode, though police did not find one at the scene. A folding knife with a green handle showed up six months later, when Feidler's neighbor found it in her yard.

The defense pointed to the discovery to prove that Arenas had a knife in November 2019, while the prosecution said the green-handled knife did not match the description of the knife Feidler said Arenas had been holding. The prosecution said Arenas was holding a black and red cell phone and not a knife.

Defense focuses on victim's past

The defense focused on Arenas' past as a major part of its case. Arenas had a prior record, including a conviction for simple assault, for pulling a knife on a security guard at an Erie convenience store and gas station in March 2011. After agreeing to a plea deal, he was sentenced to 11½ to 23 months in the Erie County Prison, with work release, in December 2012, according to court records.

At Feidler's trial, the defense called as a witness the former security guard who was working when Arenas assaulted him with the knife. The former guard, Gordon Hayes, said he broke up a fight between Arenas and another man, after which Arenas lunged at him with a knife, cutting him on an arm and near the back of his head. The defense played surveillance video of the incident.

Hayes was armed at the time, and used chemical spray on Arenas.

Hayes said the incident ended when Arenas ran out of the store. He said he did not chase Arenas, saying that his job was to keep the people inside the store safe.

On cross-examination, Reger, the prosecutor, asked Hayes a question that was pertinent to Feidler's actions in November 2019.

Reger asked Hayes why he did not pull out his gun and "use deadly force" against Arenas.

"There were just too many people" in the store, Hayes testified. "Too close."

Contact Ed Palattella at epalattella@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie resident convicted of involuntary manslaughter at retrial