A jury acquitted a Leesburg man yesterday who said he acted in fear when he killed a rowdy neighbor on his front porch during a dispute over teenage skateboarders, even though the victim was unarmed and never entered his house.
In a case that some legal specialists said pushes the boundaries of self-defense, a Loudoun County jury found Robert G. Lorenz, 54, not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the shooting death of Duren Wayne Eldridge, 31. The April 9 incident stemmed from a disturbance several days earlier when skateboarders visiting Eldridge's 14-year-old stepdaughter rode over Lorenz's lawn and flower bed.
Upset that Lorenz had called police about the skateboarders, Eldridge started the late-afternoon argument by shouting obscenities at Lorenz and then banged on the door and challenged him to a fight.
Unlike in most self-defense shootings, Eldridge never displayed a weapon or entered Lorenz's house before he was fired upon.
"It certainly is an unusual verdict," said Anne Coughlin, a University of Virginia visiting professor who specializes in criminal law. "The law is supposed to be pacifist, with the intent that violence should be used as a tool of last resort. Perhaps what we're seeing here is some revision in that message."
In Virginia and most other states, the law allows people to use deadly force only if they have a reasonable belief that they are in danger of imminent bodily harm or death.
Lorenz's attorneys said he feared that Eldridge would attack him because Eldridge had threatened to enter the house and kill him.
"He had no idea he was unarmed," said defense attorney Mark L. Shaffer. "If someone threatens to kill you, it doesn't matter. They can kill you with their hands."
Prosecutors, who argued that the shooting was a premeditated act that followed months of bad blood, said Lorenz was never in danger and simply could have shut the door and called the police.
Instead, prosecutors noted, Lorenz went back into his house after five minutes of arguing -- closing but not locking a glass storm door while Eldridge stood outside -- before emerging with his gun.
"Mere words alone do not justify deadly force," Commonwealth's Attorney Robert D. Anderson told the jury during closing arguments. "Why not close the door and lock it? Why open that door again unless there's premeditation to end this dispute once and for all?"
Anderson called the verdict "a disappointment."
A defense psychologist testified that Lorenz so feared Eldridge that he was unable to think rationally.
That testimony, along with the recording of a 911 call placed by Lorenz's wife, Laura, that captured parts of the argument, was the most compelling evidence, Shaffer said.
"Immediately prior to the shot, they heard the words Don't come into my house,' " Shaffer said. "Then they heard him say, Call an ambulance.' Where's the malice?"
Although Lorenz was charged with first-degree murder, the jury could have convicted him of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
The jury, which heard six days of testimony, had been deliberating since Tuesday afternoon. Several jurors, reached at their homes by telephone yesterday, refused to discuss the verdict.
Legal specialists said a claim of self-defense generally requires evidence that the person first tried to retreat from a threat, which prosecutors said Lorenz did not do.
Heathcote W. "Pete" Wales, a law professor at Georgetown University, said: "You've got to step back. It should be a situation where a reasonable person would consider their life threatened."
But juries sometimes neglect that standard, Wales said. In a 1992 Louisiana case that generated worldwide attention, a jury acquitted a man who fatally shot a Japanese exchange student in a Halloween costume whom he mistook for an intruder, even though the student did not brandish a weapon or force his way into the house.
Lorenz and his wife cried yesterday as the verdict was read. They refused to comment outside the courtroom because of a $3.75 million wrongful death lawsuit filed Tuesday by Eldridge's widow, Margaret.
Witnesses testified that when Eldridge banged on Lorenz's door, Lorenz opened it and the two began shouting at each other.
Prosecutors said that after Lorenz went back into his house and emerged with a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun, he baited a retreating Eldridge, eventually shooting him once in the chest after a second brief round of yelling. But Lorenz said the fatal shot was fired as Eldridge opened Lorenz's storm door and stepped toward the house.
"It's like I've got a maniac in my face," Lorenz, who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, testified earlier this week. "My reaction to that was one of fear, not only for myself but for my wife." Eldridge, a truck driver, had been drinking heavily before the argument. When he died, his blood-alcohol content was 0.16, twice the legal limit for driving in Virginia.
The argument was the culmination of months of tension on Lounsbury Court, a quiet cul-de-sac with manicured lawns in northern Leesburg. In summer 1994, on the day Eldridge moved in, his dogs defecated on Lorenz's flowers. A few months later, a car parked in Eldridge's driveway accidentally rolled into Lorenz's car-pool van.
Neighbors, many of whom testified or observed in court, have sided with both families.
Betty Comerford, who lives next to the Eldridges' former house, said Lorenz should have been punished for what he did, but she acknowledged that both men made mistakes. "Most of us feel it was very unfortunate," said Comerford, 49. "It was two men who did very stupid things." Staff writers Victoria Benning and Peter Pae contributed to this report.