Two people who were in the Paso Robles home the night Billy Don Law was killed testified in court Wednesday that defendant John Steven Danner acted in self-defense when he shot Law 13 times after Law kicked Danner’s mother and then charged at him.
Danner, 23, has pleaded not guilty to a single count of murder in San Luis Obispo Superior Court for the Feb. 7 shooting.
On the second day of testimony, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham called two key witnesses to the stand: Christine Ruda, Danner’s mother, and Robert Little, his childhood friend and housemate at the time of the shooting. Both testified that Law, who was Ruda’s boyfriend, had a cache of weapons and a history of making threats.
Little said he and Danner were burning garbage in the backyard of the home, which had no electricity, in the early morning hours when Law yelled through a bathroom window. He had already warned Danner against burning candles at the home, according to previous testimony.
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Little said he heard a commotion coming from the bedroom Law shared with Ruda. Danner went inside to investigate, he said.
“I thought I heard a fight beginning,” Little said.
He said he followed Danner inside the dark home, hearing footsteps that sounded like someone charging, and peeked around a corner to see the last in a series of flashes from a gun muzzle. He said that through the flashes, he saw Danner pointing a gun at Law and continuing to shoot him as Law fell to the floor.
“It looked like (Danner) was defending himself,” Little said.
Little, who is in custody in San Luis Obispo County Jail for an unrelated criminal case, testified that he had known Law for about three years and remembered him telling stories of killing animals, fights he had been in and about how tough he was.
“Are you aware of the term, ‘little man complex?’ ” Danner’s defense attorney, David Vogel, asked during cross examination.
“I’d say he had that,” Little responded. “He was a risk-taker, a macho guy.”
Little testified that Law had previously been violent toward a methamphetamine dealer and former tenant of the house who had been thrown out but was working on his car in a barn toward the back of the property. Little recalled witnessing Law, draped in a bathrobe, level a 12-gauge shotgun and fire a blast into the wall of the barn where the former tenant was working.
“It was pretty much right over our heads,” Little said as jurors viewed photographs of the damage.
Little said that when he told Law he could have hit someone, Law replied: “So?”
Another time, Law held two college-aged trespassers at gunpoint as he marched them off private property near the house when he saw them photographing the landscape, Little said.
“They were scared,” Little recalled.
He said Law stored “a gob” of weapons in his bedroom, including handguns, rifles and various knives.
Still, Little testified that he never saw Law physically harm Ruda and that tensions over a one-sided fight a month before the shooting in which Law knocked out one of Danner’s teeth had calmed down.
Attitudes changed in the household, he said, when the electricity was shut off and the property owner told Law, who was staying in the house rent-free as a caretaker, that they had to move out.
Little admitted that purchasing drugs was the fiscal priority and that everyone in the home used drugs to varying degrees.
Ruda testified that Law never hit her but at times had held her roughly during heated arguments.
She said he was known to flash guns at people and testified that when she first met Law he was holding a gun as he approached her and a friend while they wandered near the property to look at an old ruined house.
“He never shot it, but he would always brandish his gun at people,” Ruda said.
Law frequently accused Danner and Little of stealing his things and would get upset at Ruda when she didn’t take his side.
Ruda said that after Law yelled at Danner about burning the garbage, she again defended her son. Law, she said, then began kicking her out of the bed the two shared. She screamed something to the effect of, “Stop it,” and “Knock it off,” she recalled, though she never cried out for help and testified that she was not in fear for her life.
“He was acting different than anything I’d ever seen before,” she said. “I was afraid.”
Ruda said something made Law suddenly stop kicking her and walk outside of the bedroom.
When Cunningham asked if she thought her son’s reaction was appropriate, Ruda said: “Johnny’s choice was — you’ll have to ask Johnny about that. But I wish it never happened.”