Courtroom 303 in the Spokane County Courthouse will never win any prizes for being a sterling venue for jurisprudence.
And as a bonus touch of weirdness, a rather large picture of a semi-scowling old man stares out at the gallery from a prominent piece of wall space, just a few feet from the bench.
He is W.E. Richardson, a former judge who served in this very courtroom from 1897 to 1905. By the look of him, the old goat wasn’t too thrilled about being cooped up here, either.
But all the distractions and discomforts of Courtroom 303 disappeared in dramatic fashion Wednesday morning.
It happened when prosecutor Deric Martin replayed the riveting 911 call that Gail Gerlach made minutes after he had fired what would prove to be a fatal shot at Brendon Kaluza-Graham, the young thief who had just driven off in Gerlach’s Chevy Suburban.
Was this use of deadly force justified?
Was Gerlach’s gunplay reckless and irresponsible?
That’s the issue to be decided by this Superior Court jury of 11 women and one man, which sounds more like an episode of “The Bachelor” than a legal proceeding.
For Gerlach, the outcome couldn’t be more serious. A first-degree manslaughter conviction could put the 56-year-old plumber behind bars for the next decade.
Trials most of the time are tedious affairs.
Gerlach’s 911 recording, however, was edge-of-your-seat theater.
For the few minutes it aired, not a sound could be heard from the 50-some listeners. We sat transfixed and transported to this North Side neighborhood on the morning of March 25, 2013.
“He was pulling out of my driveway,” Gerlach told the emergency dispatcher, his voice quaking, his breathing heavy and hard.
“I took a shot at the guy.”
It’s one thing to read facts in a newspaper. Hearing Gerlach’s words as he spoke them in the moment told me a lot about this ordinary working stiff who found himself in an extraordinary situation.
The call, I believe, showed Gerlach to be an honest man.
Though clearly rattled, he made no effort to dodge any of the questions posed by the dispatcher.
And like all honest people, he couldn’t help but express some self-doubts about his actions.
“I just panicked,” he admitted at one point.
It’s easy to identify with a guy like Gail Gerlach, who left his SUV idling unattended that morning.
Not long, but just long enough for a larcenous punk to make a play.
Seeing his tools and livelihood speeding away must’ve been hard for Gerlach, who chased after his rig, yelling for the driver to stop.
The thief, Gerlach told the dispatcher, “leaned back and pointed at me.”
Gerlach carries a 9mm handgun. He has a concealed carry permit.
And he made a decision that may cost him his freedom.
The glass evidence collected and measured by police shows that Gerlach fired when his Chevy was about 60 feet away.
For Kaluza-Graham the shot couldn’t have been more freakishly unlucky. The bullet shattered the rear window, tore through the headrest and severed the 25-year-old’s spine at the base of his skull.
Kaluza-Graham – who was unarmed – never knew what hit him.
For most of my day spent in Courtroom 303, I tried to put myself in Gerlach’s position. I’ve reported on dozens of trials over the years. I don’t think I’ve ever empathized more with a criminal defendant.
Maybe it’s because Gerlach, a small man, looks so washed out and worn down. The bloodshed that occurred a little over one year ago has obviously weighed heavy on this man’s soul.
But sympathy aside, I keep getting stuck at one point. I can’t imagine taking that shot at a moving vehicle on a residential street.
Even if I did see the driver make some suspicious move. Makes no sense, especially for a man who supposedly knows about guns.
That bullet that took Kaluza-Graham’s life?
It could have just as easily wound up in the skull of some hapless neighbor or passing school kid.
Perhaps as this trial plods along, some game-changing revelations will emerge to alter my point of view. For Gail Gerlach’s sake, I hope so.
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