OKLAHOMA CITY – A jury Thursday convicted an Oklahoma City pharmacist of first-degree murder, saying he went too far when he pumped six bullets into a teenager who tried to rob the drug store where he worked, and suggested he spend the rest of his life in prison.
Jerome Ersland, 59, had been hailed as a hero for protecting two co-workers during the May 19, 2009, robbery attempt at the Reliable Discount Pharmacy in a crime-ridden neighborhood in south Oklahoma City.
A prosecutor, however, said that after Ersland shot Antwun Parker in the head, knocking the 16-year-old to the ground, Ersland made himself "judge, jury, executioner" by getting a second handgun and shooting the boy five times in the abdomen. A coroner's report said the latter shots killed Parker.
"This defendant was absolutely not defending himself or anyone else," Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Chance told jurors during closing arguments Thursday.
Defense attorney Irven Box asked jurors to close their eyes and imagine what they would do in the same situation, and told them Ersland had to take action to end a threat.
"He eliminated the armed robber," Box said.
Police said Parker wasn't armed, and since the shooting have disputed Ersland's claim that he was wounded during the robbery attempt. Ersland did not testify at the trial.
The jury — eight women and four men — recommended a life sentence after deliberating 3.5 hours. Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott can impose a lighter sentence when Ersland is sentenced July 11, but cannot depart upward. If he accepts the jury's suggestion, Ersland would be eligible for parole after 38 years and three months.
The jury's recommendation carries considerable weight. The defense must ask for a reduced penalty, and Elliott must justify any decision to reject the jurors' suggestion.
Ersland, in a dark jacket and red tie, showed no emotion as the verdict was read and was immediately taken into custody. He remained silent as sheriff's deputies led him in handcuffs to an elevator reserved for defendants.
The victim's family members, including Parker's mother, Cleta Jennings, and his aunt, Mona Stewart, ran out of the courtroom crying when the verdict was announced and wept in the hallway before departing via a public elevator.
Box and District Attorney David Prater declined to comment until after Ersland's sentencing. Jurors left the courthouse after declining to speak.
Ersland, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, worked at a pharmacy that had been robbed before. Immediately after the shooting, anti-crime advocates and many listeners and viewers of talk shows called Ersland's actions heroic.
A video from the store showed Ersland firing a pistol at two men after they burst into the store, one of them armed. Ersland hit Parker with one shot, knocking him to the ground, and chased the other suspect out the door. After returning to the pharmacy, he retrieved a second gun and shot Parker five more times 46 seconds after firing the first shot.
Jurors visited the pharmacy during the trial.
Box had said Ersland was protected by provisions of Oklahoma's "Make My Day Law," named after a Clint Eastwood line in "Dirty Harry." Legislators in the 1980s initially gave residents the right to use deadly force when they feel threatened inside their homes, then in 2006 extended that to their automobiles or workplaces.
Prater said Ersland had the legal right to defend himself and his co-workers during the attempted robbery — and did when he fired the first shot that struck Parker in the head, knocking him unconscious. But the district attorney said deadly force must be used responsibly.
"There's got to be limitations on that," Prater said. "This isn't about gun rights. This is about murder."
The second teen who entered the pharmacy with Parker, Jevontai Ingram, was sentenced to a state juvenile facility after pleading guilty to first-degree murder under Oklahoma's felony murder law. That law allows a murder charge against someone when an accomplice is killed during the commission of a crime.
Prosecutors say two men, Anthony D. Morrison, 44, and Emanuel Mitchell, 33, recruited the teens and helped plan the robbery. They were convicted of first-degree murder in early May and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Near the end of their trial, Mitchell slugged Prater in the face at the end of Prater's closing statement in the penalty phase. Deputies jumped on Mitchell to subdue him and took him away.
As Ersland's trial wrapped up Thursday, 10 sheriff's deputies stood by in the packed courtroom and Elliott warned the crowd to remain orderly.
"This has been a very emotional case for all parties involved," Elliott said. "If you feel for whatever reason you can't maintain your composure, I suggest you step out in the hall."
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