Jury finds Alabama man acted in self-defense in Midvale murder case

Jury finds Alabama man acted in self-defense in Midvale murder case

A Salt Lake County jury has acquitted a 27-year-old man of murder, saying he acted in self-defense when he killed another man following an hourslong argument in Midvale last year. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A jury has acquitted a 27-year-old man of murder, concluding that he acted in self-defense when he killed another man following an hourslong argument in Midvale last year.

Shortly after moving from Alabama to Utah for work at Kennecott Copper Mine, Lorenzo Parker was staying at a Motel 6 when he got into a fight with Tyler Williams, 30, on the evening of June 26, 2021. Police say the initial fight ended with Parker being punched but started up again several hours later when Williams came back with others. Surveillance video presented at the trial showed Williams hitting Parker with a metal pipe before Parker shoots him. Parker is also seen running away as he was pointing a gun at Williams.

A jury ruled on Sept. 2 that Parker was not guilty of the charges against him. Parker’s attorney, Rudy Bautista, said his client was released from jail that night and is back in Alabama with his family.

“He was ecstatic and relieved,” Bautista said. “He was very scared. He’s been scared throughout this entire process.”

What happened that night?

Bautista said Williams initially approached Parker with an offer to sell drugs and Parker refused. A 13-year-old witness reported seeing Williams punching Parker to the ground earlier before Parker said he didn’t want to fight and the conflict ended.

Later in the evening, Parker’s cousin arrived and the two eventually heard Williams make some gang noises, Bautista said. That led the cousin to give Parker his firearm. The 13-year-old witness said Williams came back with others in the early morning hours of June 27, and that Parker told Williams he shouldn’t have punched him earlier — which led to another fight.

The teenager’s testimony varied regarding when Parker pulled out a gun, according to Bautista — the teen could not remember if the gun was pulled out before or after Williams got out a metal pipe. Bautista said, however, the video of the event shows Williams hitting Parker multiple times with the pipe.

Bautista said when Parker realized Williams would not stop, he pointed the gun at him. Williams then threw a metal pipe, missed, and took a step toward Parker.

At that point, Parker fired one shot, hitting Williams, and then Williams ran away. Bautista said the bullet went through Williams’ arm and chest. Doctors performed surgery in an attempt to save Williams’ life, but he ultimately died.

He said Williams was found to have methamphetamine in his system that would make him act violently or irrationally.

“While (drug use) wasn’t medically attributable to the cause of his death, we argue that it was because he was acting irrationally and violent … and his actions, unfortunately, led (Parker) to have to defend himself,” Bautista said.

The jury trial

Bautista said Parker’s family was present in the courtroom throughout the trial. He said Williams’ family may have been attending remotely but did not show up in person.

The jury ruled Parker acted in “perfect self-defense,” deciding against an option to determine the act was imperfect self-defense, which would mean the murder charge would be sentenced as a reduced manslaughter charge.

At the trial, prosecutors argued Parker was the initial aggressor because when Williams came back, Parker said, “Dude, that wasn’t cool that you punched me,” according to Bautista. But Parker’s attorney argued those aren’t fighting words.

Bautista said after firing the gun, his client unloaded it, put it on the ground, waited for police with his arms up, and complied with everything they asked, which police at the trial said is not typical in similar instances.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said there was enough video evidence to support charging Parker. He said the video showed there was a back-and-forth conflict, that Parker had a weapon and that someone had been shot.

“We thought … this was something that needed to be brought to a jury,” Gill said. “Certainly, there was sufficient evidence that it needed to be filed and prosecuted.”

He said at the time, prosecutors thought the charges were appropriate but understands that the jury ultimately makes the decision. Gill said he was proud of prosecutors for treating the case seriously.

Justification hearings

This not guilty verdict comes after 3rd District Judge Paul Parker decided in a justification hearing that the prosecutors in the case had proven Lorenzo Parker did not act in self-defense and was the aggressor.

Under a state law that took effect in May 2021, a person charged with a crime of unlawful use of force who claims self-defense can request a justification hearing in front of a judge up to 28 days before a case goes to trial. The law shifts the decision about whether someone acted in self-defense from a jury to a judge, who might have to rule based on limited pretrial evidence.

If a defendant is able to bring credible evidence he or she acted in self-defense, prosecutors must prove with “clear and convincing evidence” — a high legal bar — that the person did not act in self-defense or was not justified in the use of force. If prosecutors are not able to meet that burden of proof, the judge must dismiss the charges with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled.

In this case, prosecutors met that burden, according to the judge, who ruled the charges should stand because he determined Lorenzo Parker was the initial aggressor.

Bautista argued that pulling a gun out and holding it by your side is a sign that you are prepared to defend yourself, not a threat, and that Parker did not say any fighting words.

“I really thought … he was going to prevail at a justification hearing. But after we didn’t, I don’t have any faith in those and I don’t intend to do them very often. I think juries get it better than judges,” Bautista said.

Gill said he thinks justification hearings are an “unnecessary process” that create a burden on the judicial system without providing any additional constitutional right that would not be available through the normal process, and this is just one example of that.

“I am adamantly supportive of protecting everybody’s constitutional right, OK? And under our current system, that right can be protected and is protected and preserved,” Gill said.

He said in some instances, a justification hearing takes family members of the victim through another hearing, lengthening the time they need to be involved in the judicial process.

“It just creates an extra, unnecessary step and, (from) what I’m hearing from victims, an unnecessary emotional roller coaster that they don’t need to go through,” Gill said.

The district attorney said a self-defense argument can always be brought up at trial, and if a judge rules in favor of the prosecution on self-defense at a justification hearing, he believes it should become the law of the case and should not be revisited. But that is not how the current law works. He said he would be more OK with the justification hearing process if it had some permanence. While there could be ways to improve to the process, right now it is causing more harm than good, he said.

“It was a solution in search of a problem, and the collateral consequence is a disproportionate revictimization and emotional abuse of victims who go through this process. It’s ridiculous,” Gill said.

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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.

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