Whether a 2014 shooting was “overkill” or a matter of “kill or be killed” is now up to jurors following closing statements Wednesday in the murder trial of a Paso Robles man accused of gunning down his mother’s boyfriend.
John Steven Danner, 25, is accused of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Billy Don Law, 47, in the early morning hours of Feb. 7, 2014, in a rural home they shared with Danner’s mother and a childhood friend.
Danner has pleaded not guilty, claiming he was in fear for his life when Law — who witnesses said was a methamphetamine user known to carry weapons — charged at Danner in a dark room after Danner warned Law to leave his mother alone as the couple argued.
Danner shot Law 13 times in the chin, chest and back, emptying the magazine of his .45-caliber Glock 21 pistol.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Tribune
In his closing argument Tuesday, defense attorney David Vogel told jurors that Danner’s state of mind during the confrontation was the crucial element of the case. His mindset, he said, was influenced by Law’s past violence, as well as by threats he made to “put (Danner) out of his misery.”
Vogel said Danner believed he would suffer great bodily injury — a legal requirement for using deadly force in self-defense — due to Law’s past pointing of loaded guns at people, bragging about bar fights, hitting a housemate with a baseball bat, shooting a shotgun into an occupied barn near the house, and punching out Danner’s front tooth and threatening to do it again.
Law also constantly bragged of being the “last man standing,” so Danner emptied the magazine in fear that Law could take it away and use it against him, Vogel said.
“If John Danner didn’t make sure of that, he wouldn’t be in court right now. He would be dead,” Vogel said. “It was kill or be killed.”
Though Danner threatened to shoot Law if he didn’t leave his mother alone, he pulled the gun from his waistband, racked a bullet in the chamber, and began shooting only when Law came charging at him in the dark, Vogel said.
In order to convict Danner of first-degree murder, jurors must find he acted with premeditation and malice. If they find he acted with malice but not premeditation, they could convict him of second-degree murder, and if they find he didn’t act with either but did act outside of the legal definition of self-defense, they could convict him of voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge. Or they could acquit him.
“John Danner would have a hard time premeditating what he would have for breakfast,” Vogel said. “Is this a guy who would premeditate a murder? I don’t think so.”
In his final arguments Wednesday morning, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham told jurors to remember Law’s friends’ testimony describing him as “gentle” and “non-violent” and that Law was suffering from a hand injury at the time of the shooting and couldn’t fire a gun.
“Can you fire 13 .45-caliber bullets into a 5-foot, 7-inch naked man, whose dominant hand did not work, on the theory that maybe he was armed or maybe he could take your gun away from you and use it?” Cunningham said. “ Under the law, you cannot kill someone on a series of ‘maybes.’”
Cunningham said that, despite Danner’s side of the story, he was the aggressor in the confrontation. Danner brought guns to a verbal argument, he said, then threatened Law and shot him four more times after he was already lying on his back.
“If it’s overkill, you lose the right to claim self-defense,” he said.
The prosecutor said Danner “made the choice to kill” before the shooting, showing premeditation, and the number of rounds fired and Danner’s “calm, detached, matter-of-fact” demeanor during his testimony displayed malice.
Vogel had alleged that detectives and prosecutors never properly investigated Danner’s self-defense scenario and were determined early on to pursue a murder conviction for their “trophy case,” but Cunningham called those claims an “act of desperation.”
“I want to see a murderer get a fair trial,” he said.
Jurors began deliberations Wednesday and are expected to continue Thursday.