OKLAHOMA CITY – Confronted by two holdup men, pharmacist Jerome Ersland pulled a gun, shot one of them in the head and chased the other away. Then, in a scene recorded by the drugstore’s security camera, he went behind the counter, got another gun, and pumped five more bullets into the wounded teenager as he lay on the floor.
Now Ersland has been charged with first-degree murder in a case that has stirred a furious debate over vigilante justice and self-defense and turned the pharmacist into something of a folk hero.
Ersland, 57, is free on $100,000 bail, courtesy of an anonymous donor. He has won praise from the pharmacy’s owner, received an outpouring of cards, letters and checks from supporters, and become the darling of conservative talk radio.
“His adrenaline was going. You’re just thinking of survival,” said John Paul Hernandez, 60, a retired Defense Department employee who grew up in the neighborhood. “All it was is defending your employee, business and livelihood. If I was in that position and that was me, I probably would have done the same thing.”
District Attorney David Prater said Ersland was justified in shooting 16-year-old Antwun Parker once in the head, but not in firing the additional shots into his belly. The prosecutor said the teenager was unconscious, unarmed, lying on his back and posing no threat when Ersland fired what the medical examiner said were the fatal shots.
Anthony Douglas, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called it an “execution-style murder” and praised the district attorney for bringing charges. Ersland is white; the two suspects were black.
Parker’s parents also expressed relief that Ersland faces a criminal charge.
“He didn’t have to shoot my baby like that,” Parker’s mother, Cleta Jennings, told TV station KOCO.
But many of those who have seen the video of the May 19 robbery attempt at Reliable Discount Pharmacy have concluded the teenager in the ski mask got what he deserved.
Mark Shannon, who runs a conservative talk show on Oklahoma City’s KTOK, said callers have jammed his lines this week in support of Ersland, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who wears a back brace on the job and told reporters he is a disabled veteran of the Gulf War.
“There is no gray area,” Shannon said. One caller “said he should have put all the shots in the head.”
Don Spencer, a 49-year-old National Rifle Association member who lives in the small town of Meridian, 40 miles north of Oklahoma City, said the pharmacist did the right thing: “You shoot more than enough to make sure the threat has been removed.”
Barbara Bergman, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, likened the public reaction to that of the case of Bernard Goetz, the New Yorker who shot four teenagers he said were trying to rob him when they asked for $5 on a subway in 1984.
Goetz was cleared of attempted murder and assault but convicted of illegal gun possession and served 8 1/2 months in jail.
Bergman said those who claim they used deadly force in self-defense have to show they were “in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury.”
The pharmacy is in a crime-ridden section of south Oklahoma City and had been robbed before.
The video shows two men bursting in, one of them pointing a gun at Ersland and two women working with the druggist behind the counter. Ersland fires a pistol, driving the gunman from the store and hitting Parker in the head as he puts on a ski mask.
It then shows Ersland chasing the second man outside, then go back inside, walk behind the counter with his back to Parker, get a second handgun and open fire.
Irven Box, Ersland’s attorney, noted the outpouring of support for the pharmacist, including $2,000 in donations, and said: “I feel very good 12 people would not determine he committed murder in the first degree.”
Under Oklahoma’s “Make My Day Law” – passed in the late 1980s and named for one of Clint Eastwood’s most famous movie lines – people can use deadly force when they feel threatened by an intruder inside their homes. In 2006, Oklahoma’s “Stand Your Ground Law” extended that to anywhere a citizen has the right to be, such as a car or office.
“It’s a ‘Make My Day’ case,” Box said. “This guy came in, your money or your life. Mr. Ersland said, ‘You’re not taking my life.’ ” The gunman “forfeited his life.”
Box said that another person might have reacted differently, but he asked: “When do you turn off that adrenaline switch? When do you think you’re safe? I think that’s going to be the ultimate issue.”
If convicted, Ersland could be sentenced to life in prison with or without parole, or receive the death penalty.