Jury acquits Champaign man who shot woman outside his apartment

Jury acquits Champaign man who shot woman outside his apartment

URBANA — A Champaign County jury has acquitted a man who shot a woman outside his apartment in 2017, accepting his explanation that he thought she was going to shoot him first.

A jury deliberated about 7 1/2 hours before acquitting Alva Thomas, 44, of aggravated battery with a firearm and reckless discharge of a firearm in connection with a confrontation he had with a woman outside his home in the 900 block of Pomona Drive about 3 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2017.

During deliberations, jurors asked Judge Brett Olmstead to let them listen to a replay of Thomas' testimony and that of one other witness, which the judge allowed.

Although assistant state's attorneys Lindsey Clark and Chris McCallum and defense attorney Matt Lee of Champaign called several witnesses in their respective cases, the 26-year-old victim and Thomas were the key witnesses.

Each gave significantly different versions of the moments leading up to the shooting.

What was not in dispute was that the woman was in the parking lot right outside Thomas' apartment, arguing with another woman who lived at the complex. Being awakened by that and seeing the woman parked partially in his spot, Thomas went outside to persuade her to leave and ended up shooting her in the abdomen. He then offered to give her aid and cooperated fully with the police.

The woman's account

The woman said she was standing next to her car arguing with another woman about a mutual friend who was also present in the lot but not directly involved in their exchange.

She became aware of someone "poking" her in the shoulder, neck and head, telling her loudly and in coarse terms to leave.

"I flailed my arm to brush him off while I was standing on the door frame of my car," she said.

She said she then loudly cursed at the man, identified as Thomas.

"I stepped down and when I turned around, he was holding a black gun with both hands. He was still yelling, telling me to get the (expletive) out. He shot in the air," she said, describing him as "very close."

She said she did nothing to provoke Thomas before he fired a second time several seconds later as she stood there with her cellphone in hand.

"I was shot. After I realized I couldn't move, I sat down. That's when the defendant approached me," said the woman, who had been shot in the abdomen. "He told me he was a paramedic. I could not physically move my legs."

She testified she had parts of her intestines and colon resected and still has the bullet lodged in her hip area.

After being shot, she said she took her cellphone from her hand, removed the battery and threw the pieces under her car tire.

Thomas remained nearby as she lay on the ground waiting for help. She said she never told Thomas she had a gun and never displayed a knife that she said she kept in her waistband.

Police learned that the woman, who is licensed to carry a gun, did not have one that night. She did have a pocketknife, which she said was never open.

On cross-examination by defense attorney Matt Lee of Champaign, the woman called Thomas' actions "crazy."

"He said, 'You don't live here. Get the (expletive) out of here,'" she said.

The woman denied that after Thomas fired the first shot in the air, she said: "I'm not scared of your gun." She announced she was going to call police and said he responded by saying, "You ain't calling (expletive)."

Thomas' account

In his own defense, Thomas, a 16-year active-duty Marine who was honorably discharged in 2008 for medical issues, said he was a trained combat marksman. He said he had "significant training" in how to de-escalate situations and the use of warning shots, which he called a "last resort before the use of lethal force."

He said about 2:15 a.m. that Saturday, he was awakened by loud music and saw a woman parked in his spot dancing and another person he thought was a man. When the noise subsided, he went back to sleep, but he was awakened a second time by yelling that "did not go away and grew in volume and intensity."

Thomas said he put his gun in his back pocket and "decided I had to go outside and say 'Enough is enough.'"

He testified that he had lost his cellphone the night before and was unable to call 911 to get police to resolve the matter.

Outside, he saw the woman by her car yelling at the other woman who lived in the complex, who eventually went indoors.

"It was generally combative. It didn't seem like it was going anywhere," he said of their dispute.

Thomas said he then stepped off his porch and told the woman she needed to quiet down and leave.

He said she responded with, "Who the (expletive) are you?" and he responded with "more aggressive speech."

"She's parked in my space. I don't know her. She woke me and my neighbors. She was not my guest. I told her to leave," he said.

He said she then replied, "Let me get my gun" and reached into her car and rummaged about for 12 to 15 seconds.

"I believed she was getting a gun. I was a little too far from my house to get back in ... She would have hit me in the back," he said. "I made the decision to draw my firearm and brandish it when she put something in her waistband. She raised her hands up and said, 'What now?' and took a step toward me. Her left hand went to her hip. I thought she was reaching for a gun. That's when I fired a warning shot in the air."

Thinking that would stop her, Thomas said he was surprised that she continued to yell at and berate him.

"She didn't care I had a gun," he said.

Seeing her hand go to her hip, Thomas said, "I thought at that point she did have lethal intentions and I was going to shoot her."

Thomas said he shot her in the abdomen to wound her: "I wasn't trying to kill her. I was trying to stop her advancement."

He then waited with her until paramedics and police arrived, explaining to officers that he was the shooter.

Thomas said he never touched the woman as she described.

"That's stupid. Getting that close would have put me at risk with my own firearm," he said.

As for her phone, Thomas said the woman dropped it and it came apart. He picked up the pieces and put them on her trunk.

Closing arguments

Clark argued that Thomas was annoyed and irritated and that he was reacting irrationally to a "mouthy" person.

"Did he reasonably fear imminent death? Was great bodily harm going to come to him right then and there? Not a chance," she said. "This is not how you act in a townhome near a college. You don't shoot someone who exchanges words with you."

But Lee maintained that of the three people the jury heard from who were in the parking lot — Thomas, the woman who was shot and her friend — his testimony was the most credible. The women had been drinking and Thomas had not, Lee said.

Thomas "did not ask for this" and he "reasonably believed" the woman was reaching into her car for a gun.

"He could not have been expected to wait to see the gun to protect himself," Lee said.

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