Squaw Valley man nearly convicted of shooting his neighbor

The Fresno BeeJune 17, 2014 

A Squaw Valley man, who contended he had a right to stand his ground against an unruly neighbor, was nearly convicted Tuesday of shooting the unarmed man in a dispute two years ago over barking dogs.

Eleven jurors in Fresno County Superior Court said Clarence Ayers, 76, was guilty of shooting Phillip LaPlante, 64, in an act of aggression.

The lone remaining juror apparently believed Ayers acted in self-defense after LaPlante had gone to Ayers' property and threatened to kill his dogs and threatened his family.

Because the jury was not unanimous, Judge John Vogt declared a mistrial, giving prosecutors Ryan Wells another shot at trying Ayers on a single charge of assault with a firearm. If convicted, Ayers faces up to 11 years in prison.

After the verdict was announced, jurors left without talking to Wells or defense attorney Mark Coleman. But before leaving the courthouse, three jurors said that Ayers was guilty because he was not in imminent danger when he shot LaPlante during the early evening hours of Sept. 10, 2012.

During the trial, Wells had made the issue of imminent danger the focal piece of his legal argument, telling the jury that Ayers had no legal right to shoot LaPlante because LaPlante was trying to leave. "Bringing a gun to an argument is ridiculous," Wells said in closing arguments. "If you can shoot someone over a verbal threat, there would be bodies up and down the highway."

Coleman, however, said Ayers had a right to defend himself and his family, saying LaPlante had become "unhinged," striking fear in Ayers and his family. "If he (LaPlante) had just stayed home, the shooting would have never happened," Coleman said.

During the trial, Coleman likened the case to that of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

In that case, George Zimmerman, the white Florida man who was acquitted last year of murder, shot and killed Martin, a black teenager walking from a convenience store through Zimmerman's neighborhood. Jurors weighed whether Zimmerman had a right to stand his ground in his fight with Martin.

In this case, the roles were reversed: Ayers is black and LaPlante is white.

Coleman argued that Ayers had a right to stand his ground and had no duty to retreat from the unruly LaPlante, who admitted on the witness stand that he was acting "insane" and "went ballistic" right before he was shot.

But Wells said Ayers was an irresponsible gun owner who brought a firearm to "a simple dispute."

Ayers and his family have lived in Squaw Valley on Cardinal Lane since 1984. LaPlante and his family moved in across the street 14 years ago. Neither man has a criminal record, court records show.

During the trial, Coleman said LaPlante started the fight when he drove to Ayers' property and shook the barbed-wire fence, kicked at his dogs, and threatened to shoot them.

But LaPlante testified that he wasn't looking for a fight because he confronted Ayers dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and tennis shoes and was unarmed.

Standing on opposite sides of the fence, the two men quarreled before Ayers punched LaPlante in the face, Wells said.

LaPlante testified he returned home, and told his wife, Julia, that Ayers had punched him in the face.

Julia LaPlante testified that against her wishes her husband returned to Ayers' property, prompting her to call 911 and her son-in-law and neighbor, Fred Garza.

Coleman told the jury that Ayers didn't know that LaPlante didn't have a gun when he returned a second time. To protect himself and family, Ayers asked his granddaughter to bring him a gun from the house.

Garza testified that he saw Phillip LaPlante shaking the fence and kicking and yelling at the dogs. "Do you want a piece of me? Come and get me," LaPlante screamed at the animals -- not Ayers -- according to Garza's testimony.

That's when Ayers cursed LaPlante and shot him in the groin, Garza testified.

Garza later tells the 911 dispatcher that Ayers shot LaPlante in front of his grandchildren: "Can you believe that?"

In his final summation, Wells used Garza's testimony to drive his point home; he argued that Ayers was not in imminent danger because he would have told his grandchildren to go into the house for protection.

After the verdict was announced, Coleman said he was disappointed, but relieved that the judge allowed Ayers to remain free on bail pending his next trial. "I thought we clearly established that he was defending himself," Coleman said.

Hopefully, there won't be a second trial, Coleman said. "My client is willing to plead to a felony if he gets probation," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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