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Lesson from North Buffalo hate crime trial: Get it in writing

Rod Watson

Jeffrey Calhoun’s hate crime trial yielded two important lessons, one of which should inform anyone who might ever give a statement to police.

The second is one that already should have been learned by the defendant – and any other gun owner – and which should make it easy for the judge who issued his pistol permit to follow prosecutors’ recommendation that it be revoked.

Calhoun is the white man caught on cellphone video pulling his 9 mm pistol last summer after a black woman’s car tapped the bumper of his pickup truck at a North Buffalo stoplight. While most of us would just exchange information or call police, he reached in and took Jeanneie Muhammad’s car keys because he thought she would flee and then struggled with her while trying to grab her purse after she got out and went to the sidewalk, she says, to call her husband.

When she accused him of using a racial slur after being arrested, he was charged with felony menacing and unlawful imprisonment, both as hate crimes, as well as assault and impersonating an officer after she said he told her he was a cop.

However, a jury that included two black women found him guilty of only a misdemeanor charge of plain, old menacing, rejecting the hate crime element tied to the alleged slur.

But that menacing conviction should be enough to make a judge recognize that Calhoun flagrantly violated the fundamental precepts of safe gun handling when he waved (as the defense put it) or pointed (as prosecutors insisted) his Smith & Wesson at Muhammad and others during the scuffle over the purse.

That kind of recklessness makes him a walking billboard for anti-gun zealots and the antithesis of responsible gun owners who would never pull their firearms in a situation like this. They know that, as the NRA self-defense handbook makes clear, "Safety, ethics and the law dictate that you identify your target and verify it is a lethal and imminent threat before you even draw your firearm."

Nothing about that situation – a 53-year-old, 5-foot-4-inch woman struggling with the 6-foot-2-inch Lockport man over her own purse – comes close to meeting that criteria, even if you toss in three or four people standing around them, none of whom ever threatened him.

The defense made much of the fact that the 63-year-old Calhoun – an experienced gun owner who’s had a pistol permit for 37 years and planned to target shoot later that day – had the safety on his gun as he waved it around.

But not trusting a safety also is one of the cardinal rules of gun handling.

The first rule, of course, is always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction – which Calhoun violated when he waved it in such a manner that it would have injured or killed Muhammad or any of the others had it gone off while he waved it with them in the line of fire.

As for trusting the safety, gun owners learn early on that, as the National Shooting Sports Foundation puts it, "Don’t rely on your gun’s ‘safety.’

"Treat every gun as though it can fire at any time. The ‘safety’ on any gun is a mechanical device which, like any such device, can become inoperable at the worst possible time. Besides, by mistake, the safety may be ‘off’ when you think it is ‘on.’ The safety serves as a supplement to proper gun handling but cannot possibly serve as a substitute for common sense."

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Even Calhoun’s lawyer had to concede that point, saying pulling the gun was "maybe not the brightest thing" to do.

That part, caught on video and played for the jury, made the menacing decision easy.

Not so easy was deciding his motivation.

Video could not capture what Calhoun was thinking, or why he felt it necessary to pull his gun in the first place as Muhammad struggled to retain her purse and another black woman recorded the incident.

The verdict on the hate crime charges seemed preordained when the prosecution rested without calling a witness who would corroborate Muhammad’s allegation that Calhoun, while in the back of the patrol car, called her the slur and said she probably didn’t have insurance. He denied it, and defense attorney Daniel Henry also hammered the fact that the written police statement Muhammad signed did not include allegations of a slur.

Prosecutors countered by noting that witnesses don’t always remember everything immediately after a traumatic event, and Muhammad said she later left police a voicemail with more details.

But with no witnesses and nothing in the police statement, the damage was done in a legal system based on the presumption of innocence and the need for proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" – protections any of us would want, were we ever on trial.

Nevertheless, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn had no regrets about pursuing the hate crime charges, saying it was not based simply on the "he said, she said" over the slur, but also on Calhoun grabbing her car keys and purse – assuming a black woman would try to flee even though her husband’s car was still there. And though she was driving on a suspended license, the car was registered and insured.

"I asked myself the question: If that was a white woman, would he have thought she didn’t have insurance?" Flynn said, making the same argument about racial stereotypes that his prosecutors made in their closing.

While recognizing it was a tough case, he drew a football analogy.

"The Bills can’t play the Jets and the Dolphins every Sunday," he said. "I’m not afraid to take on tough cases."

Still, it would have been an easier case to make had the slur been included in the signed police statement. Like first impressions, sometimes you get only one chance when giving police your account, and it pays to get it right up front.

Despite the hate crime acquittals, Samuel L. Radford III said "the fact that they even charged him is progress," as is "the fact that he was convicted of something." Radford, a leader of a community group that organized around the incident and pressed for justice – which historically has been hard to come by for blacks accusing whites – said the menacing conviction should make others less inclined to do something that stupid in the future, while also giving victims the confidence to come forward, knowing such cases will be pursued by the DA.

As for Calhoun, he faces up to a year in jail when sentenced in May. But he should consider himself fortunate just to be alive after approaching police who were responding to a gun call and reaching to his right side, where a holster would be. Though Muhammad thought he put his gun on the police car hood and video seemed to indicate that, trial testimony revealed it actually was his cellphone and that a cop took the gun from his holster. But cemeteries have countless bodies of unarmed black men shot dead by police for doing much less, especially as a witness watching him approach police shouted, "He got a gun. ... He has a gun, sir. ... Sir, he’s got a gun. Oh, no!"

Somehow, whites don’t seem to get shot in those circumstances. Just lucky, I guess.

Calhoun should not be so lucky when it comes to avoiding jail time – or keeping his permit and ever being able to menace someone else with a handgun.

Lockport man acquitted of hate crimes, guilty of menacing in crash

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