Real World Personal Defense Lesson: Hesitation Can Be Fatal For Good Guys

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A Marine Corps veteran’s trial — and ultimate acquittal — for shooting an ‘unarmed’ attacker in Champaign, Illinois relied heavily on proving how hesitation can prove fatal for good guys with guns. Indeed, moments before Alva Thomas shot Christina Newman, Newman had threatened to get her gun from her car and settle things right then and there.

It all began with a raucous argument, public intoxication and loud music outside Mr. Thomas’ condo near Parkland College. Thomas made a few mistakes that night, not the least of which was leaving his residence to ask the people out front to move along or at least hold it down.

He also got too close, taking a few steps from his front door almost to the sidewalk to continue to ask them to be quiet after they initially ignored him. Miss Newman showed little in the way of civility and issued a threat to get her gun from her car, at which point she went into the car and began to root around.

The record would later show that Christina Newman had a valid Illinois carry license.

Thomas, medically discharged from the Marine Corps, now walks with a cane. He realized he didn’t have time to safely retreat back to his residence and more or less stood his ground. When Newman came out of the car concealing something behind her back with her hand, he put her at gunpoint.

She reportedly said something to the effect she wasn’t afraid of him and advanced upon him, blading her body and issuing more threats while keeping her hand concealed behind her hip. Thomas fired a round over her shoulder as a warning shot as he was trained to do in the Marines.

Newman laughed and said, “he’s not serious” and continued approaching Thomas.  Evidence shows that she had closed to within six to eight feet from him when he fired a second round, this one into her torso to stop her advance. She fell to the ground.

Thomas put the gun away and tried to offer aid to the woman. The police showed up and put Thomas in custody and summoned an ambulance for Miss Newman. They found a 3.5-inch folding “tactical style” knife in her pants approximately where she had been concealing her hand.

She told responding officers that she had not been drinking, but later at the hospital, she changed her tune when the anesthesiologist explained the facts of life to her. Testing would show she had a blood alcohol content over .20, 2.5 times the amount for legal intoxication. Investigators also reportedly found an open bottle of tequila in the car.

Police were reluctant to charge Mr. Thomas, but the local prosecutor wanted a pound of flesh from this law-abiding gun owner. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Reitz charged him with the functional equivalent of attempted murder as well as recklessly discharging a firearm for the warning shot. When Thomas declined a plea bargain, the case was set for trial.

Guns Save Life provided a pair of expert witnesses for the defense. GSL Defense Training instructor attorney Steve Davis, along with retired FBI Special Agent and current GSL Defensive Training instructor Frank Wright each testified at length.

The trial hinged on proving to the jury that hesitation in a defensive situation can equal death for a good guy in Thomas’ circumstances.

“If you wait to see the gun,” Davis told the jury, “you’re probably gonna see what comes out of it.”

Davis explained to the jury how it takes time for a person to observe a stimulus and to react to it. “It takes at least three-quarters of a second for most people,” he said. To come up with that number, Davis relied in part on the work of Dr. Ron Martinelli.

Here’s an excerpt from Martinelli’s “Revisiting the 21 foot rulefrom Police Magazine:

When an officer experiences a threat, it takes on average .58 seconds to experience the threat and determine if it is real. It then takes on average .56 to 1.0 seconds to make a response decision. Humans have five possible responses to threat: defend (fight), disengage (retreat), posture (yell, point a finger, act aggressive), become hypervigilant (panic, confusion, freezing, using force excessively), and submit (surrender)….

Perception lag—Once the average officer gets on target, it takes him or her .56 seconds to make a decision to commence shooting. However, it then takes that same officer .25 to .31/100ths of a second per trigger pull to fire. As the deadly force scenario rapidly evolves, it takes that same officer on average .5 to .6 seconds to realize that the threat has passed and to stop shooting. This is because of a psychophysiological dynamic referred to as “perception action-reaction lag time.”

The reason why some suspects are found to have entry wounds in their sides and backs when the officers who shot them say the suspects were facing them when they fired is often the perception action-reaction lag time and the manner in which information was processed by the officers’ brains. This is pretty sophisticated information for a criminal or civil jury to understand and consider.

This is why any instructor worth their salt talks about the Tueller Drill. It first made its appearance in 1983 in an article from SWAT Magazine by Dennis Tueller titled, “How Close Is Too Close?

Consider this. How long does it take for you to draw your handgun and place two center hits on a man-size target at seven yards? Those of us who have learned and practiced proper pistolcraft techniques would say that a time of about one and one-half seconds is acceptable for that drill.

With that in mind, let’s consider what might be called the “Danger Zone” if you are confronted by an adversary armed with an edged or blunt weapon. At what distance does this adversary enter your Danger Zone and become a lethal threat to you?

We have done some testing along those lines recently and have found that an average healthy adult male can cover the traditional seven yard distance in a time of (you guessed it) about one and one-half seconds. It would be safe to say then that an armed attacker at 21 feet is well within your Danger Zone.

In short, a bad guy who’s within 21 feet of his victim can be on him within 1.5 seconds – which is about the amount of time it takes for the good guy to react to the stimulus, access their gun and fire a shot.

From his Marine Corps training, and other learning, Thomas knew that he had a tactical problem. He recognized the woman’s pre-violence indicators.

She told him she was going to get her gun to settle things. She went into the car and then came out concealing something behind her back. Furthermore, she maintained a bladed stance and continued issuing threats.

Even worse, she had closed to within about eight feet of him. He knew that she could close that distance before he could react.

These clues told him that he faced imminent danger of death or great bodily injury and he fired accordingly in defense of his life.

Of course, the prosecutor’s take on it differed greatly.

From the News-Gazette:

[Assistant State’s Attorney Lindsey] Clark argued that Thomas was annoyed and irritated and that he was reacting irrationally to a “mouthy” person.

“Did he reasonably fear imminent death? Was great bodily harm going to come to him right then and there? Not a chance,” she said. “This is not how you act in a townhome near a college. You don’t shoot someone who exchanges words with you.”

No, you don’t shoot someone who exchanges words with you. Unless they’ve just threatened to get their gun and “take care of things.” And then proceeded to do a very credible impression of carrying out that threat, complete with pre-violence indicators.

If Thomas had hesitated, he might have lost control of his gun or gotten shot. Even if Miss Newman came out with a blade instead of a gun, Mr. Thomas could have taken one or more stab wounds before shooting his attacker. After all, at eight feet or less, she could have been on him in about the time it would have taken for him to register an attack.

Keep the lessons here in mind as you seek to avoid finding yourself in the kind of situation Mr. Thomas found himself in that night. After all, while Thomas was acquitted by the jury, he still has memories of that terrible night in the back of his mind, not to mention $50,000 in legal defense bills.

Oh and Ms. Newman has now filed a lawsuit against him seeking in excess of $100,000 in damages for what happened that night.

Lastly, this case serves to show why every gun owner should secure self-defense insurance from one of the better companies that offer it out there. If the worst happens, you won’t have to worry about paying a huge legal bill to hire competent counsel to work toward your acquittal.

comments

  1. avatar TexTed says:

    Mr. Boch,

    I want to commend you on the tone of this article. I’ve been bothered before by some of your earlier work, where you came off as more of a Sean Hannity or Don Lemon, an opinion writer, rather than someone wanting to actually convey truthful information. This article strikes a perfect balance of information, tone, and presentation. It’s factual and informative without being opinionated. Well done.

    1. avatar John Boch says:

      Thank you. I tried to keep the sarcasm and snark to a minimum for this one. Miss Newman deserves both though.

      1. avatar daveinwyo says:

        @JB; good job and good info. Thanks

      2. avatar FedUp says:

        I talked this over with a Champaign County resident last night.

        Ms. Newman may be deserving, but Julia Reitz deserves it more.
        Also, Reitz has been having kittens over pot legalization and the governor’s desire to expunge convictions for simple possession of personal quantities. Which surprised me, as I thought she was the typical feminist/leftist State’s Attorney, and leftists normally like marijuana users.

  2. avatar GS650G says:

    Approaching them was the one mistake he made. He closes the gap and put himself in jeopardy. Yell from the house, call the cops, videotape the arrests, post on world wide hip hop.

    1. avatar David Walters says:

      Can’t agree more.

    2. avatar Swarf says:

      This right here.

      I’m not buying the whole “he couldn’t go back in the door” line, either.

      I’m not saying the lady didn’t deserve to get shot, by this guy or someone else, because she was clearly intent on pushing *some* situation as far as she could. And she sure did, and got a bullet for it, but…. he didn’t have to take the bait.

      There were egos in charge of this situation, and no one was completely innocent.

      1. avatar Dale Ross says:

        I missed the “lady” in the story. Where was she?

  3. avatar edward kenway's ghost says:

    Nothing good ever comes out of arguing with drunken idiots in public at 3AM. Better off calling the cops to report a public disturbance, that way the cops have the responsibility of dealing with idiots and the liberal prosecutors who aren’t proponents of self-defense with firearms, legal or otherwise.

  4. avatar FedUp says:

    Oh and Ms. Newman has now filed a lawsuit against him seeking in excess of $100,000 in damages for what happened that night.

    Cool.
    He can counterclaim for his legal expenses caused by her forcing him to defend himself.
    I bet the criminal trial wasn’t cheap.

    1. avatar DJ says:

      US Law Shield they cover both criminal and civil. My wife and I both have the coverage.

      If you own firearms are I think you should have some coverage. Choose wisely.

      1. avatar Bruce Rester says:

        I think the USCCA coverage is better than the Law Shield coverage. For $22 per month they also cover bail bonds and civil suit awards up to $600K, as well as attorney fees.

  5. avatar Michael in AK says:

    Engaging with drunks is a losing proposition. Let the cops do it, even if you have to wait for them to show up….

    1. avatar SoCalJack says:

      She did have a BAC of .20.

  6. avatar Albert Davies says:

    Very interesting article, and factual. However, I have a word of caution for all persons (gun owners) who take your advice and purchase Insurance.
    You better investigate all companies and organizations who advertise such coverage, because there is a serious amount of false advertisement going on with them. (maybe not false advertisement but definitely
    not what you think you are getting) You MUST read the entire policy, do not take anyone’s word, period.
    Whatever you do, do not assume you know or understand the policy. There was such an assumption on my part about USCCA, the NRA Shield, and every pro-gun organization out there. I ASSUMED I was covered for all gun related incidents—-WRONG!!! There is what I call a CATCH to those policies, and it is right there if you are smart enough to read it. YOU ARE ONLY COVERED IF YOU “DISCHARGE” YOUR FIREARM IN A “LEGITIMATE” SELF DEFENSE SITUATION, PERIOD!!! Brandishing a firearm to scare off attackers will get you jail time. Just having a firearm on you concealed, in a pocket, or in a holster can and will destroy your life even if you never tried to present it, having permits mean nothing, Constitutional Rights mean absolutely nothing when you run into lying cops!
    I had the top membership/insurance with USCCA, but when they heard the charges against me, I was treated like a leper and they wouldn’t even give me suggestions, even after being a member for years.
    The NRA was no better, as a Endowment member and member since I was 10 years old, and now 76, wouldn’t even talk to me period. The history of what I’ve done over the years for the gun issue is to long to write here. But, I did learn a lesson, you can support all those organizations for your entire life but when the chips come down they will all throw you under the bus. As long as your money flows their way, they talk a good line, but if you need help, good luck. Be aware, very aware!

    1. avatar MojoMedicineMan says:

      Right on Albert, politics.
      Short example; I purchased a full warranty on an expensive new vehicle battery, 6 years, etc. Free replacement, right? 2.5 years later the battery dies. I go to the dealer and they said, “Oh, we don’t make that battery anymore, sorry. But, we can give you $3.40 trade in value on a new one”. Anytime, I have to purchase a battery, I make sure that it’s not made by that company and I boo and hiss at their Nascar team. lol

      1. avatar possum, destroyer of arachnids says:

        But I like Kyle Bush.😥

        1. avatar MojoMedicineMan says:

          LOL
          Ok, I’m sorry.. I don’t even know who drives for them?

  7. avatar MojoMedicineMan says:

    The judicial system is the problem..
    The prosecution should be stuck with ALL the bill’s for being ambitious egotistical imbeciles. Again, now forcing people to purchase insurance to protect themselves from the law. Total BS. Got to justify having my job crap, so let’s run with it, as usual.

    1. avatar Hans says:

      Mojo, when prosecuted by the state and found
      not guilty, the defended should be made whole.

      This was an excellent write up, however, it is more
      civil to register a complaint in person than always
      calling a LEO.

      We have in too many ways have become a drive through
      nation.

      1. avatar MojoMedicineMan says:

        Yes.. Concerning the old man, that’s a tough call to make, as he probably assumed they would respect their elders and vamoose, etc. Not now days!
        Ten, fifteen years ago, I kept getting picked for jury duty, county and once Federal.
        County was three times in a row, I found it odd that my name kept coming up?
        I was sickened from the first time in a college town, I couldn’t believe the corruption, especially of the young district assistant states attorney. He was so arrogant that the first time he introduced himself to us, he kept taking texts and calls during his introduction, stop, talk, stop, talk and attempted to intimidate us to rule in his favor and frequently bragged about the fact that he had 23 indictments in one day once. It worked on most everyone but me and he knew it, so he singled me out one day and said “Do I know you from somewhere, law school, etc? Because you look familiar when I first seen you”. I said, nope, wrong person. College kids party, right? Well, the campus cops work with the city cops and find out about a frat party and then wait until late, when everyone is loaded and the odor of Mary Jane hit’s the air, then they block off all the exits and go through the front door one at a time ticketing kids and young crying girls into written confessions, because they would go easier on them if they told the truth, LOL! These are usually rich kid’s with a stack of charges on them up to felonies, right. So, I showed up for court a couple of times to watch how things went down and so they show up, scared to death, with their parents and expensive attorneys, because their medical careers or law degree careers were on the line, etc. One young fella was on crutches, he had a broken leg because he was so scared when they raided the frat house that he jumped out a second story window! The female judge had a smile on her face the whole time trying not to lol when she handled his case. Long story short, very LARGE fines were given to each and sometimes probation, but rarely and it would be dismissed to a smaller charge and miraculously their lives were saved, oh how they were relieved and in tears as they exited the court room. Can you pay your fine today sir/maam? In addition, they knew who the drug dealers were in the town, but never touched them. A few years ago, the mayor and city manager even bragged in the local paper that they had a financial banner of a year. What’s this all about? $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
        Oh, guess what happened to the ambitious young district assistant attorney?
        A few years later, he was busted for dui and open container in another county recreating, speeding and he wasn’t recognized by the “park ranger” who took him down and it was on the news for only one day and never heard about again. Looks like his dreams of one day becoming the states attorney general went up in smoke, aye? KARMA
        That was enough for me, plus they have this thing called “teen court” that’s an even bigger farce for juveniles, sure we will pay the restitution, someday, lol, omg.

  8. avatar Tim says:

    If someone is determined enough to keep moving forward after a warning shot was fired, they’re capable of doing anything. She was bent on harming Mr. Thomas.

  9. avatar Mikial says:

    Good article.
    He did the only thing he could under the circumstances. But I agree with the author that he should have never gone out to ask them to be quiet. Just call the cops and let them do their job.

  10. avatar possum, destroyer of arachnids says:

    No need for violence. Just hand the drunk a cheap bottle of vodka, BFFL

    1. avatar strych9 says:

      I’ve done that kind of thing more times than I can count. “Here, have a drink (and leave me alone). I’m going to go [do something] I’ll be back in a bit”.

      When they’re wasted you’re instantly their best friend. Even if they wanted to fight you two seconds ago.

      1. avatar AD says:

        Haha. Friends get something decent. The others get a shot of the hottest, harshest, baddest whiskey in the bar.

        1. avatar Ardent says:

          I used to frequent a nice bar that was invaded occasionally by young punks. I had a deal with the bar tenders to serve me shots of tea after challenging some young hot head to do shots of whiskey with me. They got Kessler, I got tea, want to guess how that ended? Quite a few had to be carried away, a few arrested, but inevitably when the lead barbarian was down the others would filter out, and the bartender got to keep the money I paid for my “shots” in the bargain. Old age and treachery and all that you know.

  11. avatar doesky2 says:

    Was he dumb enough to say he gave a warning shot?

    Don’t talk to the cops folks!

  12. sue the piece of crap commie prosecutor for all of the money he had to spend on the lawyers and for slander, libel, deformation of character, harassment, violating his civil rights and mental stress.

  13. avatar Big Al says:

    Warning?????? My take on a “warning shot”;

    BANG! BANG! BANG! Stop or I’m going to shoot you!

  14. avatar Sean G./The Rookie says:

    “This is not how you act in a townhome near a college.”

    Bad things can happen anywhere, in any neighborhood. The circumstances of the situation matter, not to socio-economic status of the area they occurred.

  15. avatar Defns says:

    When faced with that sort of situation, step out on the porch with your double barreled shotgun. Fire two blasts! Buy a shotgun!

    1. avatar Richard Steven Hack says:

      Then go to jail for illegally discharging a firearm…

      I think as long as you’re on your own property, “brandishing” might not be charged in those circumstances, but discharging it almost certainly will get you a charge, depending on the jurisdiction. At the very least, someone hearing the shots will call the cops and you’ll have to explain yourself.

      But if you display the weapon, odds are the miscreants will disappear and the police will never know you displayed the weapon as they probably won’t be called (unless the miscreants are dumb enough to call them.)

      1. avatar Ardent says:

        Not that I fire “warning shots” or advocate such practice, but the where sure does matter! I’m happy to live on 14 acres outside any municipality and in a free state. There is litterally a pistol range in my front yard complete with dueling trees and plates and my house isn’t visible from anything not on my property excepting from the air. I’m not trying to brag at all, just when I read this it made me chuckle thinking of my local prosecutor (who wouldn’t) trying to prosecute me for firing a warning shot out front of my house…but…but …he wandered into my pistol range while I was practicing (exhibit A, a pic of my front yard complete with plate rack and dueling tree). I’m having an odd morning, but the thought really made me smile.

    2. avatar JasonPinWisconsin says:

      …said Shotgun-Joe Biden. Lol

  16. avatar Dan says:

    Yet ANOTHER instance of “The Process Is The Punishment” where an evil agenda driven prosecutor does their best to destroy an innocent person KNOWING that win or lose the victim of their state sanctioned persecution still LOSES. They lose time, they lose money and they lose LIFE….because the stress of a trial
    where you life LITERALLY hangs in the balance WILL shorten your lifespan. The prosecutor in this case is
    an example of EVIL INCARNATE.

    1. avatar Hannibal says:

      Also a good reason not to march out and get in confrontations unless you really have to.

  17. avatar The Grey Man says:

    As far as insurance goes, I know of USCCA and another guy mentioned US Law Shield. That’s it… How can you tell when a company is good and reputable??? Do an article on that!

  18. avatar dwest says:

    This also shows why you don’t fire warning shots, or fire just “one” in the torso. Do what the cops do: they don’t fire one bullet, they fire one mag! Neutralize the threat and prevent future litigation from civil suits by sending them to meet their Maker.

  19. avatar Marty says:

    21 feet is a general rule, not an absolute. I’ve commented before about an incident with an officer on the same department I worked for. On a pier, where the officer could not retreat, he fired on an armed with a knife subject beginning at 30 feet. Most of his hits were in the torso and all would have eventually killed the suspect. The suspect fell at the officers feet. Don’t buy the 21 feet rule, it could cost you your life.

  20. avatar Ryan says:

    All this article does, is tell me to aim a little higher than the torso when I’m in a DGU situation so I won’t have civil penalties on top of criminal penalties when I’m acquitted for the criminal part.

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