Movies and TV shows, by definition, thrive on drama. Part of the drama involves Actor A firing a handgun at Actor B, who then goes flying through a plate-glass window as if he’d been picked up and thrown by King Kong. One media source estimated that by the time an American turns 21, he or she has seen some 18,000 violent deaths enacted on TV and movie screens. Another media source reverses that figure and posits that it’s 21,000 “shootings” viewed by age 18.

That’s a lot of programming for our general public—and, never forget, the general public constitutes your jury pool if you ever have to go to trial over a self-defense shooting. Among that general public is the legal community. Plaintiff’s lawyers and prosecutors are as vulnerable to public imagery as anyone else. When anyone so programmed runs across a case where someone was shot many times, it’s hard for them to believe it was self-defense. It’s hard for them to believe that all of those shots were motivated by anything but malice.

And malice is the key ingredient in a murder charge, or most allegations of excessive force.

Superhuman Strength

There are lots of reasons a criminal antagonist can stay on his feet and absorb shot after shot before he ceases his attempt at murder. One of them is substance abuse. In what we’ll call Case One, many years ago an armed robber in the Chicago area engaged multiple police officers in a hellacious shootout. I was told by a member of the investigative team that the guy was a heroin junkie who had recently “shot up.”

Thus, it’s no surprise that this man took a whole lot of lead before he stopped trying to shoot the officers. He was shot 33 times with 9mm pistol bullets before he went down. I’m told he was also hit with two 12-gauge rifled slugs, the second of which at last ended the fight. The suspect has been hit many times in the head, and virtually all of his body organs have been violated by bullets. However, none of the headshots reached deep brain. A part of this “stopping failure” may have been the choice of ammo, reportedly 100-grain “soft-nose” rather than hollow-point bullets, most of which passed through and through without expanding. But a huge part of it was obviously the drugs the gunman had on board.

Rage & Adrenaline

It’s not always drugs. In Case Two in Louisiana, an average-sized man being arrested by a male/female team of officers became violent and attacked them for their .38 Special revolvers. The female officer shot him, but the suspect grabbed her gun and shot her in the heart, killing her almost instantly. In the savage battle that followed, the male partner shot the man several times (yes, there was a reload), including one muzzle-contact wound to the head. The suspect fell after that with a huge hole in his skull. The exhausted, injured cop turned to attend to his partner and heard a sound behind him. Spinning to face the threat, he saw the cop-killer rising to his feet again.

So, he shot him some more. The man collapsed at last, now having been shot 10 times, mostly in vital parts of the body. The killer bled to death on the floor, and the shooting was considered justified after an investigation proved the officer’s account of the incident.

A toxicology screening revealed nothing in the man’s bloodstream that could have accounted for his incredible ability to absorb multiple gunshot wounds. The department switched from the 125-grain +P semi-jacketed hollow point ammo to a heavier bullet for their .38 Specials, and then adopted a 16-shot, .40-caliber semi-automatic as standard issue.

More well known is Case Three, which took place in Dade County, Florida, in 1986. A rolling stakeout team of FBI agents forced a stolen car containing two armed robbery/murder suspects off the road in a suburban neighborhood, and the perpetrators opened fire. A high-volume firefight ensued. Two agents were killed, three were injured for life, and two more were wounded. By the time the two criminals slumped dead, one had sustained six gunshot wounds, and the second, a dozen. The latter had been hit in the chest early in the gunfight by a 9mm 115-grain Silvertip hollow point that had gone through his arm first. The projectile cut a major artery, producing an “unsurvivable” wound, but the round stopped before it reached the heart. Nonetheless, he was able to stay in the fight, running, shooting and murdering two agents after sustaining that lethal wound. Death by hemorrhage does not occur immediately. Indeed, physicians tell us that even if a bullet wound completely stops cardiac functioning, a man with a fully oxygenated brain can continue conscious, purposeful, violent activity for about 14 to 16 seconds.

In Case Three, toxicology screenings revealed nothing in the bloodstreams of the two gunmen. One investigator said, “They had nothing in them but coffee and Danish.” But they also had adrenaline. The two perpetrators in Case Three had a long history of murdering helpless victims in cold blood. Before the shooting started, they had minutes to prepare, during which they had to realize that now, for the first time, they were going to be up against armed, trained professionals. Such a realization tends to trigger the “fight or flight” response. The body instantly releases adrenaline, creating short-term strength that seems almost superhuman. Simultaneously, the body releases norepinephrines and endorphins, nature’s painkillers. Vasoconstriction occurs, meaning that it will take longer to “bleed out” from some wounds.

Human beings can sustain an amazing amount of damage and stay up and running long enough to inflict fatal injuries on other humans if they are not stopped. Often, that “stopping” requires a sustained stream of gunfire.

Medical examiners tell me there is no post-mortem artifact to determine just how much adrenaline is raging through a person’s body when they die. Nor is there any reliable gauge to show a jury what the effect of “X” amount of adrenaline would be on any given individual. All we know is that it happens.

And if you shot a man a dozen times to stop him from committing murder, you and your defense team have the right to explain adrenaline’s effects to the jury. If your training—or your reading, including this article—informed you beforehand, it is discoverable in court. Thus the jury will understand what you knew at the time you made the decision for which you are now being judged.

Shot Placement

The most important factor in the nebulous topic called “stopping power” is shot placement. In Case Four, a lawsuit alleging excessive force and wrongful death was filed in the wake of a “suicide by cop” in suburban Illinois. After what was later established to be a classic pre-suicidal “departure ritual,” a man staged a disturbance he knew would draw several police officers. When they arrived, he attacked them with a bludgeon. With two officers down and injured, the third opened fire. He was armed with a high-capacity 9mm semi-auto carrying 18 rounds of 115-grain 9mm Silvertip ammo.

Compassionately trying to stop the man without killing him, he fired his first several shots into the man’s legs. But they didn’t stop him and he kept coming. The officer raised his weapon to the man’s chest and kept shooting, though the suspect’s violent swinging brought his arms in line with the blazing service pistol as often as his thorax. When the assailant finally collapsed, the officer’s 17-round magazine was empty and only one cartridge remained in the chamber of his pistol.

The dynamics of the shooting were explained extensively in court. The officer who fired was personally exonerated, and he was the first to determine that “shooting to wound” was the biggest reason his initial gunfire had failed to stop the attacker.

Over in Seconds

In any shooting case, including those cited above, the jury has to be constantly reminded of how fast these things happen in real life. It always takes longer to explain what happened than it took for the incident to happen. This creates the false illusion of it having happened in slow motion, with all sorts of time for you to explore options and perhaps do something less drastic than shooting an attacker several times.

And don’t forget that jurors have spent their lives watching slow-motion shootings on TV and in theaters. In a courtroom, the very few seconds of your incident are dragged out over days, weeks, or sometimes even months of testimony. It’s easy for those who judge you to start seeing the event in slow motion—so it is critical for your defense team to constantly bring the jury back to the unforgiving speed at which your incident took place. They need to understand what little time you had to react.

There is no more classic example of this than Case Five in New York City, in which four plainclothes police officers fired a total of 41 shots, striking their target 19 times and killing him. They had pulled over to talk with a man who was acting suspiciously. He ran from them a short distance up some steps, then suddenly turned on the two officers who were closest to him. As he did so, he rapidly drew a small black wallet from his coat pocket, raising it like a gun. In the dim light, it appeared to be a small black pistol. Both of those officers opened fire as they moved back, one of them falling from the porch where the shooting began, making it appear to the others that he had been blasted backward by a very powerful weapon. The other two officers on the street also engaged. When the man slumped to the floor of the porch and dropped his weapon, they all stopped shooting.

By this time, the first two officers had both emptied their service pistols. The two cops on the street had unleashed nine more bullets between them. The general public saw it as an atrocity, and the four officers were tried for murder.

All four were acquitted. A very capable defense team led by Stephen Worth established, among other things, just how fast it had all happened. Back in the 1970s, famed firearms instructor John Farnam had proven that the average person can fire four shots a second from a double-action-only handgun with a long trigger stroke, and five shots per second from an autopistol with a shorter trigger stroke and reset. Some people, of course, will be faster than average, and testing for the defense team showed that some cops can fire six shots per second from the kind of guns used in Case Five. Worth established that all 41 shots had been fired in a timeframe of five to six seconds, and that the four officers had stopped shooting as soon as their reasonably perceived antagonist finally went down.

Many of the hits were in the lower extremities. One of the officers, seeing bullets strike the man’s torso with no effect and concluding he might have body armor, had deliberately lowered his point of aim and shot for the legs, unsuccessfully, in hopes of bringing him down. Moreover, the officers had been issued 115-grain FMJ ammo. The NYPD has since issued much more effective 124-grain +P Speer Gold Dot hollow-point ammo.

High-Volume Need

Until law school graduates and the general public alike are better educated as to what really happens in gunfights, we will continue to see necessary high-volume shootings misconstrued as cases of “it must have been malice if he shot him that many times.” In the meantime, defense teams will have to painstakingly show juries that the resilience of the human body, the effects of drugs and alcohol, the relative impotence of certain types of ammunition and other factors sometimes make it necessary for apparently homicidal suspects to be shot multiple times in legitimate self-defense.

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