Milwaukee County Sheriff / AP
John Henry Spooner, left, was found guilty Wednesday of fatally shooting his 13-year-old neighbor, Darius Simmons, whom he suspected of burglary. Patricia Larry, right, is pictured holding a photo of her son Darius Simmons.
A Milwaukee man was convicted Wednesday of fatally shooting his 13-year-old neighbor, whom he suspected had broken into his home and stolen weapons.
The trial now shifts into a second phase in which the defense will try to prove the 76-year-old defendant was mentally ill at the time of the shooting.
A jury deliberated for about an hour before finding John Henry Spooner guilty of first-degree intentional homicide. Surveillance video from Spooner's own security cameras showed him confronting Darius Simmons in May 2012, pointing a gun at him from about 6 feet away and shooting him in the chest.
Spooner had entered two pleas to the homicide charge: not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. That set up the trial to be conducted in two phases: the first to determine whether he was guilty of the homicide, and if so, a second to determine whether he was mentally competent at the time.
Spooner's defense attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, said he has an expert who will testify that Spooner was suffering from mental disease that prevented him from knowing right from wrong.
Gimbel conceded from the outset that his client shot Darius. However, he argued that Spooner did not intend for the gunshot to be fatal.
"There was no mental investment in what he was doing," Gimbel said.
The second phase of the trial operates under slightly different rules. The burden of proof shifts to the defense, which only has to prove "clear and convincing evidence," instead of the stricter standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." In addition, a verdict requires agreement from only 10 jurors, not unanimity from all 12.
Spooner's surveillance video provides a clear view of what happened. Spooner emerges from his house and confronts the teen, who is retrieving his family's garbage cart from the street. Spooner points a gun at Darius, who quickly moves back a few steps. Spooner then exchanges words with Darius' mother, who's standing on her porch out of view of the camera, and Spooner briefly points the gun in her direction. Moments later, Spooner points the gun back at the boy standing a couple of feet in front of him. He fires, hitting Darius in the chest.
The teen stumbles and runs away, and Spooner fires a second shot that misses. He appears to attempt a third shot but the gun jams.
Darius' mother, Patricia Larry, testified that she chased her son to where he collapsed in the street, cradling him in her arms as he died.
"I pulled his shirt up and I (saw) he had a bullet hole in his chest," she testified tearfully. "He took one more breath and that's it."
Spooner paced up and down the sidewalk until police arrived a few minutes later. Police officer Richard Martinez testified that he was handcuffing Spooner when Spooner acknowledged, "Yeah, I shot him."
During closing arguments, Gimbel seized upon that statement as an indication that his client didn't necessarily mean to fire a fatal shot.
"He didn't say, 'I killed the kid.' He didn't try to explain anything about the circumstances," Gimbel said. "That tells us this man was involved in an act where was not very much mental investment in what he was doing."
But prosecutor Mark Williams said it's impossible to watch the video without realizing that Spooner knew exactly what he was doing. He pointed out that Spooner confronted Darius, aimed the gun at his heart and pulled the trigger twice.
"How is that not intent to kill?" he asked. "You can see the intent. Look at [Darius] holding his chest. Look how close they are together. It's point-blank range. Darius runs away and he shoots again."
First published July 17 2013, 3:22 PM