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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

There were not many around with anything kind to say about Hicks. His mother was dead, his father long gone.

Sister Expressed Grief

It was left to a sister, Aretha Hicks, to remind Miami that Odell was a human being, snared in a trap like an animal and carted away.

"He would play with my daughter. She's 8 now," Aretha remembered. "He would take her to the library and read her books or take her for walks in the park. She broke down when she found out about it."

Worse than anything, this man Rasheed was all over the TV. If he was so sorry, she said, why hadn't he bothered to come by or even send a card?

"When you lose your people, I don't care what they do, they're still your people," she said bitterly.

But her grief was faint against so many louder voices.

It is called "community sentiment," though a lot of law professors say that is just another phrase for passing the buck. Prosecutors turn a case over to a grand jury to get a sense of how the community wants it handled.

Few seasoned observers were surprised when sentiment in Miami called for sending Rasheed home. "What you had here is a city fed up with crime, and a singularly unattractive man killed in a booby trap," said University of Miami law professor Terry Anderson.

With similar cases, that is the way it often happens across the country. Prosecutors refuse to indict, juries do not convict, judges decline to sentence.

"The law sometimes takes second place to human nature," said Tom Smith of the American Bar Assn.'s criminal justice section. "It's hard for a lot of people to accept the idea that you cannot take a life in defense of your property."

In most states, the laws on justifiable homicide are based on a balancing test. Deadly force is permissible to protect life, but it is deemed too severe a response to a threat to property.

Dilemma of the Law

Sometimes that test is hard to apply: Intruders enter a home. Who knows what they are after? Split-second choices are made.

In 1984, mindful of the dilemma, the California Legislature passed a law saying that when someone kills an intruder, the presumption will be that there was reasonable fear of loss of life or bodily harm until proven differently.

But that extra weight on the balancing scales does not apply to setting booby traps, automatic and incapable of making decisions.

Even the grand jury in Florida, in letting Rasheed go, made a bow to the traditional rule of life over property: "Deadly force is permitted and should only be tolerated when it is necessary to protect one's self or others from death or great bodily harm. . . .

"Everyone is on notice that electrical devices designed to 'jolt' you can kill you and laws against such devices should be reviewed and enforced."

That message may have been lost in the ado of the shopkeeper's release, however. "People are thinking, if the police don't do the job, then I can do whatever I want," observed William Wilbanks, a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University.

"That's bad news. I don't think any of us wants to live in a booby-trapped society. A trap can't discriminate between a burglar, a fireman, a policeman or the Amway lady."

Youth Killed by Rifle

In a 1979 case, also here in Miami, homeowner Chuck Falco rigged a .22-caliber rifle to fire at intruders. The slug killed a 14-year-old member of his Boy Scout troop.

Falco pleaded no contest to manslaughter. He was sentenced to probation, plus weekends in jail for six months.

"If Rasheed had killed a 14-year-old first-time offender, maybe he would have been indicted, too," Wilbanks said. "But people were happy someone got the dirtbag. They think it spared them the cost of a trial and it was good riddance."

Odell Hicks was quickly laid out in a flimsy, particle-board coffin and taken to a county-owned cemetery just the other side of a chain link fence from a police station. There was no burial service.

His relatives had tried to raise $100 for a cremation, but they did not scrape up the money in time. Hicks was placed in a trench 416 feet up Row No. 610, as measured from the asphalt road.

A bulldozer filled in the spot from a standing pile of sand and limestone rock. There is no marker, and his place is lost in the flatness of the field.

Times researcher Lorna Nones contributed to the preparation of this story.

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