LIFE'S BETTER IN THE MOUNTAINS

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Legal Conundrum

His name was Luciano Martinez. A native of Mexico he came to the United States fifteen years ago and settled in Western North Carolina. He was fifty years old.

On a crisp winter day in 2008, he was picking Galax leaves near Turkey Pen Gap, part of Pisgah National Forest. He had a valid permit to gather Galax from the forest floor. He would sell the Galax to florists and nurseries to make money to support his wife and children, two of whom were in college. It was the middle of the day on December 13th. The day was bright and sunny and he removed his sweatshirt as he worked. Martinez had no idea these would be the last moments of his life.



Photo of Martinez from the Asheville Citizen-Times


His name is Kyle Keith. A life-long resident of the North Carolina mountains, he was twenty-two years old and a recent graduate from Western Carolina University.

December 13th was the last day of deer hunting season. Keith got up early in the morning to go hunting. He walked the woods alone for several hours and didn't see any deer activity so he called his father for advice. His father told him that one of his friends knew a good hunting area. The friend would meet Keith at a nearby gas station and take him to an area near Turkey Pen Gap where they were certain to find a deer.

The two men climbed the rugged terrain and saw plenty of signs of recent deer activity. They had stopped to rest on the top of a ridge when Keith saw the leaves moving below them. He put his rifle to his shoulder and looked through the scope. He thought he saw something in the rustling brush and asked his hunting partner to look through the scope. The partner wasn't sure what he saw and handed the rifle back to Kyle Keith who positioned the rifle, aimed through the scope and shot.

They walked down the trail, about 140 feet from where Keith took the shot, and saw a form darker and larger than a deer. It was Luciano Martinez. The bullet from Keith's 300-caliber rifle had entered the left side of his neck. It went through his ribs, lungs, and major blood vessels before exiting on the right side of his body. Martinez died instantly. His knapsack and sweatshirt lay nearby.

While his friend called "911" Keith called his father. He told him something terrible had happened.

After a lengthy investigation, Keith was charged with involuntary manslaughter and was released on unsecured bond. The trial was held last week here in Transylvania County where the shooting took place. Throughout the trial, time and time again, the defense attorney reminded the jury that Martinez was not wearing blaze orange. [NOTE: In North Carolina, only hunters are required to wear blaze orange during hunting season. Martinez was not hunting, did not have a gun, and was not required to wear orange in the forest.]

An investigator with the National Forest Service testified at the trial that the area where the incident took place was very dense with steep terrain. "The visibility of that area is extremely limited," he said. He reported that when he had talked with Keith following the shooting, Keith had told him the two hunters had looked repeatedly through the rifle scope and waited three to five minutes before believing they were seeing a deer. The defense attorney cross-examined the investigator and asked him if there were signs posted at the Pisgah Ranger Station informing the public they should wear orange during hunting season. The investigator said there were such signs posted throughout the building.

Keith himself testified at his trial, saying that he had been deer hunting since he was a little boy. His father had purchased a lifetime hunting license for him when he was an infant. He had taken hunting safety classes (required by NC law) and had taken further safety classes in order to carry a concealed weapon. He had been a member of his high school's shooting team all four years. "Safety is my number one priority," Keith said in his testimony.

The prosecuting attorney's summation was straighforward and factual. He told the jury the incident was a tragedy, but that it was an intentional act even if the results were unintentional. He said the evidence met the standard for involuntary manslaughter in that Keith had undertaken actions in a negligent manner against the safety and rights of another person. "What happened was a tragedy. What happened was a mistake, but it wasn't an accident...when he took that shot it was an intentional act." He reminded the jury, "When you take a weapon like this that holds ammo like this and you go into the woods...you better be sure you know what you're looking at before firing that weapon."

The defense attorney's summation was poignant and filled with emotion. He pointed to the defendent Kyle Keith and told the jury that their decision would affect, "that young man at the table there for the rest of his life." He reminded the jury of the Easter holiday they had just celebrated and how Easter was all about compassion and forgiveness. He completed his summation by pointing out once again that Martinez was the one who chose to go into the woods without wearing hunter orange and urged the jury, "when you retire to that room to consider the case, you will consider who is responsible."

The jury deliberated for less than two hours. They found Keith not guilty and he was acquitted. He is free to live his life as he pleases. He is not required to take additional classes on hunting safety and there are no restrictions on his hunting license since he was not found guilty of any crime in the shooting. He has no obligation, financial or otherwise to the family of Luciano Martinez in the death of their husband and father.

Was justice served? I was not a member of the jury and therefore I cannot argue with their verdict. I do have very mixed feelings about the result of the trial. And I'm thankful I did not have to decide this young man's fate.

Was justice served? There is one thing that keeps nagging at me. I just can't help wondering...had the Mexican immigrant Martinez shot the youthful native son Keith under the exact same circumstances...would the verdict have also been the same?


24 comments:

KB said...

That's a very good question about the role reversal.

I have to say that I believe that the shooter should have had some form of consequence. E.g., he should have had to take more safety classes and then help teach some so he could tell first hand the consequences of not being absolutely certain of what you're shooting at. "Believing" that it was a deer was NOT good enough.

This story sums up one reason why I hate hunting season. Innocent people out enjoying the forest are in danger...

Samantha said...

Definitely a good point and one I thought of as I read this sad, tragic story. You did a masterful job, by the way, of telling it. I do believe that Keith and/or his family should absolutely have been nailed with some kind of financial penalty - damages. There is so much here and I know little about legal repercussions, but common sense tells me that more should have been required from Keith in the end.

xo Sammie and Mom

George said...

I'm afraid I may know the answer to your question. You did a wonderful job of describing this sad situation.

Karin said...

What a tragic story and you have told it so well. I have no knowledge of hunting or of rifles, but I have a hard time understanding that a human being presents like a deer through the scope.

Courtney at Scattering Lupines said...

Thought-provoking question at the end. It would be interesting to know what the verdict would have been, had the tables been turned.

That boy should have had to serve SOME sort of penalty towards his hunting license, even if not his permanent license that would effect jobs and academic applications, etc and haunt his professional career. And certainly community service and even some sort of service for the family.

That young man was obviously careless to kill a MAN instead of a deer. I feel like hunting safety courses should require a written or somehow other documented research report to be submitted by each person applying for a licence on hunting-related "accidental" tragedies. Maybe it would make then THINK more. THese things could and SHOULD be completely avoided.

These stories just tear me up to read.

Busy Bee Suz said...

Wow, this is just awful for both parties. I do wonder though, if the tables were turned, would it have been different?
I too would not have wanted to be on that jury. I do feel sympathy for both sides.

kks said...

how sad! and great question about role reversal....i think the outcome may have been different.....
he should have to pay something to the family...in my opinion....
such a tragic, tragic story...
xoxo

Dog_geek said...

Well, my feelings aren't mixed. Keith had a gun. Not a toy, but a deadly weapon that he took out into the woods with the intention of using it to kill something. It is 100% his responsibility to be absolutely, positively sure of his target before he pulls that trigger. Period. I'm sure that he felt horrible and that he never intended to hurt a human being, but he did, and there should have been consequences for his actions.

Every hunting season, I see hunters in places where they are not allowed to be, not wearing blaze orange. I see them on days when no hunting is allowed. I find shell casings in restricted areas. I find bullet holes in "No Trespassing" and "No Hunting" signs. The thought that people can and will shoot to kill without really being sure what they are aiming at makes me sick to my stomach.

Cheryl said...

I think I may be the odd one out here.....I think the young man should have been prosecuted. If you cannot see the CLEAR image of a deer in your sights, then surely 'YOU DO NOT SHOOT'.

A very sad tale, and my heart goes out to the family left behind.......

I would just like to say thank you for the lovely comment you left on my last post.....

Barb said...

I don't think the victim in this case can be blamed for his own death. The responsibility and the fault lies with the person who holds the deadly weapon. To have no punishment seems like a slap in the face of justice.

robin andrea said...

I can't imagine how a skillful hunter can mistake a man for a deer. The shooter was simply not careful, and an innocent man was killed. Your question at the end is a very sad testimony to the times in which we live. I grieve for the Martinez family, for their loss and the injustice visited upon them.

minda_is_here said...

Well I guess I'm going to take a chance here and put my head on the chopping block...lol. I also have mixed feelings about this awful tragedy. Both families I'm sure have been through a tremendous amount of pain and suffering that is unimaginable. I however feel that it was somewhat lax on the victims part not to be wearing the blaze orange. I live in a desolate area and if I ever go outside of my home (even to get the mail) I am sure to wear the orange. Even the Menonnite children wear orange to walk to school. I believe you can never be too careful in this situation. As for the the young man, if he ever hunts again that day will linger in his memories and he will think of it before he pulls the trigger. I honestly feel it was a mistake and both families have been punished enough. And as a hunter for several years, all the training classes and precautions won't safeguard you from an accident from happening. It's a chance we all take everyday. I will now go stick my head under the covers and wait for the stones to be thrown!...lol. And you told story wonderfully..Well done...

FOLKWAYS NOTEBOOK said...

Hunting deaths are common each hunting season. Not only to the hunters but people out for a hike or living near hunting areas. Perhaps the woman that was out in her yard hanging clothes who was shot and killed by a hunter's bullet should have been wearing an orange vest??? Or what about dogs that are killed by hunters as they move through the woods enjoying a romp? Should they wear orange vests?? Come on -- many of these dam hunters are trigger happy -- vest or no vest. Many just shoot whatever moves. Very scary to all people that like to get out in nature or live by nature or take their dogs for a run. This type of killing has been going on for years and it seems that nothing comes about to protect the non-hunters. The hunters that kill are usually off the hook for any type of punishment. Legal hunting is really a free license to shoot anyone out in the woods. -- barbara

Rudee said...

It's a tragic situation for everyone. When my best friend's daughter was hit by a car on her college campus, she was more or less found to be at fault because she had on dark clothes even though everyone else saw her clearly. I don't like to blame the victims in situations like this, but I do have to say, I agree it's not an accident because the hunter had intent, even though the outcome was not what he'd intended.

I always think twice before I hike anywhere near a hunting area and try hard not to look like prey.

jeannette said...

What an agonizing story -guilty or not -I think some punitive damages (or however you want to call it) should be paid to the family! They lost a father without any fault of his own.

merrilymarylee said...

So the woods belong to the hunters? Shooting when you're not sure is like driving without headlights, isn't it?

Remember when someone was practicing at a firing range and one of his "misses" shot a child in an amusement park? Why do they have to be so high-powered?! I don't like to even drive on a country road during hunting season.

If people want to hunt, fine. No guns or bows and arrows though. Have to tackle them.

One more thing... lifetime gun permit? Good grief.

Jayne said...

I am sure he felt horrible too, but as many have stated, he should have been more than 100% sure it WAS a deer he was shooting. I can't see how a man on the forest floor looked like a deer, nor one standing. He should have had at least some restitution to the family to make. Sad, sad story.

mypixelsblog said...

I don't think the verdict would have been the same had the situation been reversed.

Jenny said...

Hunting accidents are so tragic and senseless. This was beautifully written...thought provoking. But, alas, I have no answer. I suspect the tables might have been changed had the circumstances been.

troutbirder said...

Great writing Carolyn. I'm curious about local reaction to the verdict. The victim would have had the book thrown at him if the roles were reversed.

The Thundering Herd said...

This is not easy and I have followed the stories. In fairness though, financial reimbursement to the victim's family are decided in civil court (this was in criminal court). And the standards of evidence are different in the two systems. Thus, just because he was found not guilty of a specific criminal act does NOT mean that he will not be found liable for the damages. That may be confusing, but it is the way our system works.

P.S. - I carry an orange vest that I wear while hiking in hunting season. National Forests - such as Pisgah - are legal hunting areas despite the hiking trails through the area. And my dogs also wear bells to alert hunters that they are not wildlife.

Do not think I am defending the young man - I am not. But, like you, I find this a very difficult case.

NCmountainwoman said...

Thanks for your comments on this complex story. I do appreciate all the different views.

Minda - Thanks for dropping by. I would not allow anyone to chop off your thoughts.

Marylee - Yes, you can purchase a lifetime hunting license for your child on the day he/she is born.

Herd - Valid point. The only way for the family to seek financial restitution would come with filing a wrongful death civil action. The Hispanic community took up a collection to send Martinez's body back to Mexico for burial.

Leedra said...

I told somebody yesterday (before I saw this story) that people in the woods are killed because they are mistaken as what the hunter 'thinks they are seeing'. Usually a deer or bear. Not the first time I have heard of this, sometimes the person is fortunate that the hunter missed with his shot.

If they had to pass the scope back and forth to decide whether or not it was a deer they should have refrained from shooting. Their safety training should have told them that much. Never shoot until absolutely sure what they are seeing.

Very sad story here, very well told.

The Duchess of Wessex said...

Hopefully the Martinez family will have the ability to file a wrongful death suit against Keith and his family. If I were an attorney I'd take their case!

Thank you for this post!