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.
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?