Ohio attorney's novel defense for client: the gun made him do it

Ohio attorney's novel defense for client: the gun made him do it
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Okay, maybe the defense attorney didn’t say it quite that explicitly. But that’s clearly the intent behind Sam Shamansky’s defense of his client in a Franklin County, Ohio courtroom this week. 74-year old Robert Thomas was acquitted on charges of involuntary manslaughter last month, but a jury did find him guilty of aggravated menacing for approaching a neighbor while holding a rifle with the intent to scare him.

That act kicked off a chain reaction that led to the shooting death of 43-year-old Jason Keys; not at the hands of Thomas, but by a neighbor who shot Keys from across the street. During the sentencing hearing for Thomas on the aggravated menacing charge, Shamansky laid the blame for the incident on the fact that all three men were armed.

“This perfect storm that occurred here had a common thread, and that is everybody involved had a firearm,” Shamansky said at the sentencing hearing. “What does the legislature expect is going to happen under those circumstances?”

Thomas was carrying a loaded AR-style rifle, and Keys lawfully carried a handgun. But it was the neighbor, Elias Smith, who shot Keys from across the street with a homemade rifle, Shamansky said.

Shamansky told The Dispatch after the hearing that this should send a clear message to the Ohio legislature that this is what happens without sensible firearms regulations.

What “sensible” regulations would Shamansky like to see in place (and defend his clients against)? Oh, he didn’t have much to say about that. But he was apparently pretty convincing to the judge, who sentenced Thomas to five years probation, including two years of house arrest, after listening to the anti-gun attorney’s arguments (alongside those of prosectors).

Franklin County Assistant Prosecutor David Zeyen told The Dispatch after the hearing that he expected a sentence like this but had hoped the judge would grant his request that Thomas spend every Father’s Day for five years in jail as a reminder of his actions.

Charae Williams Keys, wife of Jason Keys, called Thomas demonic at the sentencing hearing and asked for the maximum penalty.

At the hearing, Thomas said he was remorseful.

“I was very wrong,” Thomas said. “I couldn’t envision Mr. Keys’ response pulling his own gun, and I definitely could not envision someone shooting.”

And Thomas was wrong here. But it was Thomas who was the problem, and if he hadn’t introduced a firearm into the mix it could have been a knife or even his car.

On the day of the shooting, Keys was visiting with his wife’s family, who lived a few doors down from Thomas on Walnut Hill Park Drive on the Far East Side. Keys had visited the family home regularly.

At the time, Thomas believed Keys had been messing with him for years and wanted to scare Keys by letting him know he had a gun.

Shamansky said Thursday this was all in Thomas’ head and “undoubtedly untrue.”

According to facts that came out at trial, while Keys and his wife were getting into their car to leave, Thomas approached Keys on the street with a rifle in an attempt to scare him. A loud argument began, with family members running outside and screaming. Someone took the gun away from Thomas.

Whether Keys took out his gun is disputed.

Smith, a 25-year-old living across the street, heard the commotion, stepped out onto his front porch and, from afar, fatally shot Keys several times with a rifle, according to prosecutors.

Why Smith shot is unclear. Video played at the trial and captured by the body camera of the Columbus police officer who arrested Smith recorded Smith saying, “I thought somebody was going to get killed, and that’s why I fired.”

Zeyen said during the trial Smith told police he was attempting to protect his elderly neighbor, Thomas, against Keys, a man he didn’t recognize.

Smith’s trial is pending.

Thomas had no right to confront Keys with a gun. Keys had every right to carry one in self-defense, whether or not he was able to actually draw it from its holster. It’s unclear whether Elias Smith was legally allowed to possess his homemade rifle, and it’s very much an open question as to what a jury will say about his decision to draw down and fire at Keys, especially since it sounds like there were individuals who were closer to Keys and Thomas who would have been much more capable of handling the situation than he was all the way across the street.

Did at least one gun owner make a very bad decision that day? Absolutely. Is that the fault of the gun or Ohio’s gun laws? Of course not. The vast majority of legal gun owners would never act the way Thomas did that day, and I’d argue that 99% of us aren’t going to just randomly take a shot at one party in a dispute without knowing what’s actually taking place. The circumstances surrounding Keys’ death are notable not only because of their tragic nature, but because things like this don’t happen all the time, as Shamansky would have us (and the judge deciding his client’s fate) believe. And if Shamansky is convinced that imposing California-style gun laws in Ohio is the answer, I suggest he reach out to a few of his colleagues on the West Coast and ask them how many gun cases they’re handling at the moment. More gun control doesn’t equate to fewer guns or less crime… though I will admit it would almost certainly make for more clients for a good criminal defense attorney.