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Booby Trap Debate : Protecting Property--What Price?

Booby Trap Debate. Next: How prosecutors draw the line between a citizen's right of self-defense and the crime of manslaughter.

November 14, 1986|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — The burglar was on the roof. It was night. He punched a hole in the tar paper and wood and shimmied through.

His name was Odell Hicks, and this was how he made his living. He skulked along the top of the ceiling to the front of the store, where there was another opening, and dropped down to the floor.

He snatched up armfuls of shoes and blue jeans and pushed them into the alley through the iron bars of the locked back gate. He could retrieve them later. Then he stuffed some watches into his pocket and picked up a radio.

Finally, he was done. He climbed back into the same hole in the ceiling to get out. And that was his undoing. This time, his skin touched a booby trap made of two metal grates bolted to the plaster. It was rigged with an extension cord plugged into a 115-volt outlet in the wall.

The jolt killed him on the spot. His stunned body was found the next morning, the radio still clutched in his arms, his crime and his punishment visible through the jagged hole in the ceiling.

Public Debate Rekindled

But closing the books on the Sept. 30 electrocution of Odell Hicks was not as simple as hauling away the corpse. The death of the small-time Miami burglar revived a long, vexing debate about when action to defend property becomes a crime.

Florida law--like that of most states, including California--says a life may not be taken just to protect property. It is a principle that dates back to English common law.

Prentice Rasheed, who set the electrical trap, was arrested and charged with manslaughter. "I didn't mean for anyone to be killed," said the shopkeeper, a convert to Islam. "I just wanted to shock him and warn him not to be coming in here."

Seemed to Decide Both Ways

Three weeks ago, a grand jury anguished over the booby trap and the state law--about a crime-weary black businessman and a dead burglar with a long rap sheet. Then it wrote a report that seemed to decide it both ways.

Rasheed's use of deadly force was wrong, the jury said, but it declined to indict him: After all, his mantrap was crudely wired and plugged into regular household current. He could not have expected it to kill anyone.

"I'd like to say to the American people, Allah akbar , God is the greatest!" the relieved merchant exclaimed.

Then he and his agent made plans to go out on the hustings--to hit the talk shows and lecture circuit of a nation that is mad as hell and not going to take it any more.

The way the two of them see it, they are onto a "Rasheed concept" and it is all about crime victims fighting back: a fund for victims, a hotline for victims, new laws for the benefit of victims.

"I'm trying to move him into the celebrity line," said Miami lawyer Alvin Goodman, the agent. "I want to get him booked making speeches once a week for a year, in the price range anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000.

"That's what I'm shooting for at the present time. I've also got someone on the side to coach him with his speaking. All we need to do is get his material together."

Rasheed and Goodman have known each other for 20 years, since the days when Rasheed was still Prentice Edwards, a good-timing kid who had come to the big city from his father's peanut farm near Dublin, Ga.

Now, a month after the burglar's death, they stood in Rasheed's store, reviewing deals and arrangements. A thief was dead, and the ordinary profile of a struggling merchant had been inflated with a tough-guy symbolism.

Case Stirred Interest

They could not be sure how far things would go. Rasheed was not as well known as, say, Bernhard H. Goetz, the man who shot four youths on the New York subway in 1984. But the interest in Rasheed had plenty of spin. The phone was still ringing.

In a few days, he was scheduled for TV talk shows in Pittsburgh and Boston. Then came "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in Chicago. He had already appeared on ABC's "Nightline," "The CBS Morning News" and "Larry King Live" on CNN. It had been that kind of a whirlwind.

In New York for "The Today Show," he was whooshed around in a limo, leaning out of the window to take photos of the tall buildings. NBC put him up in The Essex House.

"There is always an opportunity in everything, and this just happened to be the opportunity for Rasheed," Goodman said blithely of their big plans.

The lanky storekeeper listened quietly. He is a calm, polite man with a habit of pulling at the soft brush of beard along his gaunt face. His style is to wear a hat indoors and out.

He is not quite sure what America wants from him--or for how long--though he knows he has touched some frightened pulse that beats across the land.

Regret, Not Guilt

"People are aware that the police don't do enough to protect them," he said. "People are saying: Hooray! Somebody finally did something."

For the dead burglar, Odell Hicks, Rasheed feels sadness but no guilt. He was good and Hicks was evil. The forces collided. Evil fell.

"It was society's responsibility for letting Mr. Hicks go bad in the first place," he said. "I didn't do that. Society did."

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