Howell says he acted in self-defense; prosecutor calls explanation 'a lie'
PRESCOTT – Startled awake hearing horrible pounding just before 6:30 a.m. on March 5, 2003, Robert Howell testified Thursday, he warned his son and then fired off what he meant to be a warning shot, acting in self-defense and protection of his family.
Howell's wife and son also testified Thursday in the evidentiary hearing that the defense hopes will convince Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Janis Sterling to suppress evidence police seized in a drug raid of Howell's Dameron Street home.
If Sterling agrees to suppress evidence, Howell's attorney Tony Shaw explained, the 50-year-old man won't go on trial for nine felony counts: four of aggravated assault, four of endangerment, and one unlawful discharge of a firearm within city limits.
Acting on a search warrant Prescott Area Narcotics Taskforce (PANT) officers went to Howell's home on March 5, 2003, looking for his 19-year-old son whom they believed was dealing drugs from the house.
Shaw argued that the PANT officers didn't execute the search warrant properly because they didn't allow anyone in the residence reasonable time to answer the door before breaking it down.
Howell said Thursday that when he fired the shot he didn't know the people at the door were police officers, adding that he meant to fire the warning shot into a nearby couch.
Deputy County Attorney Steve Young countered, "That's a lie," explaining that the couch was seven feet to the right of the door and Howell fired the gun straight ahead.
"I remember being startled awake, tremendous vibrations, being scared out of my wits," Howell told the court.
It sounded as if people were using sledgehammers to break down the front door and possibly a side wall, Howell said. Just a week before that, someone had thrown rocks through a window in his house and his wife bought a gun for self-defense.
When he heard the noises, he said, he jumped out of bed and ran through the adjoining bathroom toward the front door. When he saw his young son reaching to open the front door, he yelled for him to get away from the door and returned to the bedroom to retrieve the gun.
"It was this horrible, intense, vibrating noise. I didn't hear voices or words," he said, later adding that he didn't know who was at the door, "but whoever it was, wasn't there for a cup of sugar."
By the time he returned to the bathroom's second door, closest to the front door, the PANT officers had broken down the door. While he said he'd originally intended to fire a warning shot into the couch, he said the bright light coming through the door blinded him and on a reflex, he pulled the trigger.
"I was totally fearful for my life and for my son's," he said.
Young argued that the PANT officers correctly executed the search warrant and the "knock and announce" procedures, based on the small size of the house and their concerns for their own safety.
In April 2003, on the state's request, a judge dismissed with prejudice the four counts of attempted first-degree murder. The state offered Howell a plea agreement that would dismiss the aggravated assault charges if he pleaded guilty to a Class 6 felony of unlawful discharge of a firearm within the city limits.
Howell did not accept the deal, and in August 2003, the state sought a grand jury indictment on four counts of endangerment, bringing the total number of felony charges against Howell to nine.
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