What Happens When a Civilian Kills a Cop in Self Defense?
The careless use of SWAT teams in no-knock drug raids -- when heavily armed police burst into a home without warning -- has resulted in a long list of innocent people being killed or seriously injured in the United States. 2014 alone found SWAT teams in Georgia senselessly killing businessman David Hooks and maiming toddler Bounkham “Baby Boo Boo” Phonesavanh. And when those raids victimize people who aren’t even selling drugs, narcotics officers seldom face criminal charges and are given every benefit of the doubt. But if, on the other hand, Americans shoot narcotics officers during militarized drug raids—perhaps believing that they are being robbed and are acting in self-defense—charges of first-degree murder are likely. The case of Marvin Louis Guy in Texas is a glaring example.
Guy, an African-American man who is now 50, was the target of a no-knock drug raid on May 9, 2014. Narcotics officers, operating on a tip from an informant who claimed that Guy was selling bags of cocaine, carried out a SWAT raid on his home in Killeen, Texas at around 5:30 AM—and Guy grabbed his gun and opened fire. Charles Dinwiddie, one of the officers, was hit and died two days later. Guy was charged with capital murder, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty despite his assertions that he thought he was acting in self-defense. Guy’s trial is scheduled for June of this year.
No drugs were found during a search of Guy’s home, only a glass pipe and a grinder—which indicates that Guy was, at worst, a recreational drug user and not a drug dealer. Journalist Radley Balko, author of the 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, has commented on the case in the Washington Post, saying: “The fact that the police didn’t find any drugs in the house suggests that Marvin Louis Guy didn’t know he was shooting at cops. Drug dealer or no, unless he had a death wish, it’s unlikely that a guy would knowingly fire at police officers when he had nothing in the house that was particularly incriminating.”
A very similar incident occurred in Burleson County, Texas on December 19, 2013, when a SWAT team carried out a no-knock drug raid on the home of Henry Magee (who is white). An informant had claimed that Magee had a major marijuana-growing operation, and during the raid, Magee shot and killed one of the officers, Adam Sowders. Although Magee stressed that he believed he was being robbed and had no idea he was shooting at police officers, he was facing the possibility of being prosecuted for capital murder. But in February, a grand jury decided that Magee legitimately believed he was acting in self-defense—and Magee was not indicted. The Magee case has been referenced in a Change.org petition urging prosecutors to “please drop the capital murder and attempted murder charges against Marvin Louis Guy.” The petition notes that Guy thought he “was defending his wife and home, just as Magee believed he was doing.”
Dick DeGuerin, Magee’s attorney, has pointed out that the grand jury’s decision to not indict him is the exception instead of the rule: in most cases, Americans who kill a narcotics officer during a drug raid are vigorously prosecuted—even if the evidence indicates that they genuinely believed they were acting in self-defense and the raid was not justified. And that is the history that Marvin Louis Guy is up against: a War on Drugs in which the burden of proof is on the victims of militarized drug raids rather than those carrying out the raids. The convictions of Cory Maye, Ryan Frederick and Christina Korbe in the past bear that out, demonstrating that Guy could have a hard time getting a fair trial. And given Texas’ long history of racial oppression, the fact that Guy is African-American and the officer he killed was white indicates that his attorneys will have a major fight on their hands.
The Maye case is one of the most egregious examples of an innocent victim of the War on Drugs going to prison for acting in what he believed was self-defense. In 2001, Maye (who is African-American) was renting a duplex apartment in Prentiss, Mississippi when neighbor Jamie Smith, who lived in the other half of the duplex, became the target of a narcotics investigation. Narcotics officers, acting on a tip from an informant who claimed that large amounts of marijuana were being stored and sold in Smith’s apartment, obtained a warrant for a no-knock drug raid for both sides of the duplex—and when the raid was carried out at around 11 PM on December 26, 2001, officers found only a small amount of marijuana in Smith’s apartment. Smith was arrested without incident.
Maye testified that on the night of the raid, he was asleep in his living room when a loud crash woke him up. Thinking he was being the victim of a robbery and wanting to protect his baby daughter (who was asleep), Maye went into a bedroom and grabbed a pistol—and when officer Ron W. Jones broke into that bedroom, Maye fired three shots. Jones was killed, and Maye was charged with first-degree murder, convicted by a predominantly white jury and sentenced to death by lethal injection.
In court, Maye testified, “After I fired the shots, I heard them yell, ‘Police, police!’ Once I heard them, I put the weapon down and slid it away. I did not know they were police officers.” And Maye’s girlfriend Chenteal Longino (who lived with him) testified: “He was defending himself and my child.”
Maye was on Mississippi’s death row awaiting execution when Balko first wrote about his case in 2005—and Balko’s reporting brought the case a lot more attention than it had been receiving. In September 2006, Maye’s death sentence was overturned, resulting in a new sentence of life in prison. In 2010, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that Maye was entitled to a new trial, and when he pled guilty to manslaughter in 2011, Maye was sentenced to ten years in prison with time already served. Maye was released on July 18, 2011.
Similarly, Chesapeake, Virginia resident Ryan Frederick said he believed he was acting in self-defense when he killed narcotics officer Jarrod Shivers during a paramilitary SWAT raid. On January 17, 2008, narcotics officers carried out a no-knock raid on Frederick’s home based on an informant’s claim that he was growing marijuana in his garden. Frederick, evidently believing that he was being robbed, fatally shot Shivers—and after the raid, the only thing officers found was a small amount of marijuana (a misdemeanor in Virginia). No marijuana plants were found. But on February 4, 2009, Frederick was sentenced to ten years in prison for voluntary manslaughter despite his assertion that he thought he was acting in self-defense and didn’t know Shivers was a police officer. Balko, on March 18, 2008, had commented: “Ryan Frederick is merely the latest citizen to be put in the impossible position of being awakened from sleep, then having to determine in a matter of seconds if the men breaking into his home are police or criminal intruders.”
Like Maye and Frederick, Christina Korbe of Indiana Township, Pennsylvania (a Pittsburgh suburb) said she believed she was acting in self-defense when she fired a shot that killed a narcotics officer who was bursting into her home. The target of that investigation was not Christina Korbe but rather, her husband Robert R. Korbe, who was suspected of drug dealing and eventually pled guilty to that offense (in 2010, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for cocaine distribution, mail fraud and illegal possession of firearms). However, there was no concrete proof that Christina Korbe herself had any involvement in drug trafficking. She was home with her two children when, around 6 AM on November 19, 2008, officers showed up with a warrant to arrest her husband; FBI Special Agent Samuel Hicks was the first to burst through the door (a battering ram was used), and Korbe has said that she shot him thinking he was a robber and didn’t realize he was an FBI agent. Korbe stressed that she was trying to protect her two children when she fired the fatal shot.
Prosecutors would have loved to put Korbe away for life, but instead, she agreed to a plea bargain. Korbe pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges, and in January 2011, she was sentenced to almost 16 years in prison. In September 2013, Korbe sought a reduced sentence, but her request was denied.
Abby Martin, host of “Breaking the Set” on RT and a blistering critic of U.S. drug policy, has characterized the United States as a country with a “two-tiered justice system that shelters police from accountability time and again.” And nowhere is that more evident than in the U.S.’ failed War on Drugs. The aggressive prosecutions of Maye, Frederick and Korbe—and now, Guy—is quite a contrast to the treatment that narcotics officers typically receive when they kill or injure innocent people. There have been numerous examples of narcotics officers killing people who clearly weren’t selling drugs—the Rev. Accelyne Williams in Boston in 1994, Annie Rae Dixon in Tyler, Texas in 1992, the Rev. Jonathan Ayers in Toccoa, Georgia in 2009—and in none of those cases did the officers involved stand trial on felony charges. At an inquest held after the death of Dixon (an 84-year-old African-American woman who was a paraplegic), a predominantly white jury decided that narcotics officer Frank Baggett, Jr. (whose gun went off and sent a fatal bullet into Dixon’s chest) didn’t even deserve civil charges. Texas’ Smith County Commissioner Andrew Mellontree, in a 1992 interview with the New York Times, commented: “People can’t accept the idea that an 84-year-old grandmother gets shot in her bed, and it’s not even worth a negligence charge.”
Nor will there be criminal charges against the SWAT team member who, on May 28, 2014, invaded the Habersham County, GA home of Alecia Phonesavanh at around 3 AM and tossed a flashbang grenade that disfigured her baby and blew a hole in his chest. The officers in that SWAT raid were looking for Phonesavanh’s nephew, who was suspected of making a $50 methamphetamine sale. But the officers obviously conducted a sloppy investigation because the nephew didn’t even live in the home that was raided. Nonetheless, a grand jury, in October 2014, declined to indict any of the officers—and to make matters worse, Habersham County hasn’t given Alecia Phonesavanh or her husband any money to cover their baby’s devastating medical expenses (which have exceeded $900,000 so far). The SWAT officers, despite terrorizing the Phonesavanh family, acted with impunity. But if Alecia Phonesavanh had thought she was being robbed and injured the SWAT team members in any way, it’s quite possible that—unlike those who maimed her baby—she would have faced a vigorous prosecution.
There is a disturbing pattern at work: Baggett was given every benefit of the doubt for needlessly killing a bedridden woman of 84, while Maye got the death penalty for shooting Jones in what he believed was self-defense. There will be no criminal charges for the serious injuries inflicted on toddler Bounkham Phonesavanh, but Frederick received a ten-year prison sentence for shooting Shivers in what he believed was self-defense. And in Texas, prosecutors certainly aren’t giving Guy the benefit of the doubt. They’re out for blood.
Clearly, U.S. drug policy is being carried out in a reckless, irresponsible fashion that often endangers innocent Americans—especially people of color—violates their 4th Amendment rights, and penalizes them should they try to defend themselves. And if the War on Drugs’ ugly and racist history is any indication, Marvin Louis Guy is fighting an uphill battle all the way.