Juliana Barbassa, AP, November 16, 2007
Three young black men break into a white man’s home in rural Northern California. The homeowner shoots two of them to death—but it’s the surviving black man who is charged with murder.
In a case that has brought cries of racism from civil rights groups, Renato Hughes Jr., 22, was charged by prosecutors in this overwhelmingly white county under a rarely invoked legal doctrine that could make him responsible for the bloodshed.
“It was pandemonium” inside the house that night, District Attorney Jon Hopkins said. Hughes was responsible for “setting the whole thing in motion by his actions and the actions of his accomplices.”
Prosecutors said homeowner Shannon Edmonds opened fire Dec. 7 after three young men rampaged through the Clearlake house demanding marijuana and brutally beat his stepson. Rashad Williams, 21, and Christian Foster, 22, were shot in the back. Hughes fled.
Hughes was charged with first-degree murder under California’s Provocative Act doctrine, versions of which have been on the books in many states for generations but are rarely used.
The Provocative Act doctrine does not require prosecutors to prove the accused intended to kill. Instead, “they have to show that it was reasonably foreseeable that the criminal enterprise could trigger a fatal response from the homeowner,” said Brian Getz, a San Francisco defense attorney unconnected to the case.
The NAACP complained that prosecutors came down too hard on Hughes, who also faces robbery, burglary and assault charges. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
The Rev. Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP and pastor at Hughes’ church, said the case demonstrates the legal system is racist in remote Lake County, aspiring wine country 100 miles north of San Francisco. The sparsely populated county of 13,000 people is 91 percent white and 2 percent black.
Brown and other NAACP officials are asking why the homeowner is walking free. Tests showed Edmonds had marijuana and prescription medication in his system the night of the shooting. Edmonds had a prescription for both the pot and the medication to treat depression.
Edmonds’ stepson, Dale Lafferty, suffered brain damage from the baseball bat beating he took during the melee. The 19-year-old lives in a rehabilitation center and can no longer feed himself.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. All I did was defend my family and my children’s lives,” said Edmonds, 33. “I’m sad the kids are dead, I didn’t mean to kill them.”
He added: “Race has nothing to do with it other than this was a gang of black people who thought they were going to beat up this white family.”