PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Imagine you’re up watching our late night news when you hear your back door rattling, then see a red laser pointed on your chest. One Portsmouth man claims that happened to him.
Brandon Watson said he was protecting his family when his wife heard noises in the back yard on January 3, 2013: “She said, ‘oh my gosh, someone is in the backyard.'” The noises got closer and then she heard the clicking of the backdoor handle.”
In a neighborhood where weapons are everywhere, Brandon Watson didn’t hesitate to grab his own legally purchased gun. It was a decision with lingering repercussions.
Brandon remembers, “We ran upstairs very quickly … she saw guys in all black from right here in this window looking down.” Watson said he couldn’t immediately find his cell phone to call 911 so he ran downstairs with his firearm and stood at the foot of the stairs, shielded by a wall.
“I announced myself, ‘Who is that? Who is that? I have a gun.’ And as soon as I said that, two red laser beams were on my chest,” Watson said. “so I looked at the red laser beams on my chest, and I fired a warning shot.”
A single shot through a window, and then Watson ran to get help from his neighbor across the street, a Virginia State Police deputy.
As I came out of the house … they said, ‘stop,’ and I said, ‘Who?’ They then said, ‘Who just fired the shot out the back window?’ I said I did … and I was holding a gun, and they said, ‘put down the gun.'”
Watson dropped his handgun and said he received shocking news.
“They said, ‘we just got news you shot at an officer.’ I said, ‘An officer? Nobody came to my door. What do you mean an officer? I didn’t know there were any officers in my backyard,'” he told WAVY.com.
Then he learned the dark figures in his backyard were Portsmouth police officers who had not announced themselves.
“As far as the officers response, I support their response 100 percent,” said Portsmouth Police Chief Ed Hargis, who claims his men never heard Watson say he had a gun or say anything. “Anytime the police hear there is a firearm, they start giving verbal commands, and they start yelling police.”
It came out in court last September that police were in the wrong backyard. They were supposed to be in Patricia Brooks yard, which is next door to Watson. She had called 911 because she heard unrelated noises in the downstairs of her home.
Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle Mobley explained how police ended up in the wrong backyard: “When they went around from the front, they started counting 2, 3, 4.” They were counting the number of townhouse units from the end, where Patricia Brooks lived. “Then they see a gate that is open, and that raises suspicion that must be the house,” Mobley said.
Mobley admits Watson did not know police were in his backyard, but prosecutes him anyway for misdemeanor reckless handling of a fire arm.
“You cannot fire indiscriminately through the window,” Mobley said.
And a judge agreed. Watson was found guilty. So he appealed the decision, and a second judge declared a mistrial. At that point, Watson chose to have a jury trial.
“This can’t be doing your job. You come in my backyard, try to open my door, open my window and flash red laser beams on my chest because you thought I was the burglar, and I thought you were the burglar,” Watson said.
The seven-person jury bought that, and found Brandon Watson not guilty, after deliberating only 47 minutes.
“The Commonwealth really didn’t have a case. It wasn’t reckless, so it didn’t’ take a lot of discussion,” said Danny Barnes, a juror and WAVY-TV 10 employee.
When 10 On Your Side asked Mobley about the juror’s comment, that the Commonwealth failed to prove Watson was reckless, he simply said, “I just disagree with that point.”
The jury thought Watson showed restraint by only firing one shot.
“There was agreement if there had been more than one bullet hole, had he sprayed the wall with bullets, bang, bang, bang, that would have been reckless,” Barnes said.
The jury was also concerned police went to the wrong home, and that there was general confusion.
“That really wasn’t explained very well, and that was a sticking point for most of us, and that wasn’t flushed out at all,” Barnes said.
The jurors honed in on the red beams on Watson’s chest.
“The police kept saying they had their weapons pointed at the ground at all times. At the same time, they said they were using their TAC lights on the gun to illuminate whatever they were looking at,” Barnes said. “You can’t be doing both at the same time, that’s contradictory.”
10 On Your Side asked Chief Hargis if a light could have gone into the window.
“Yes, but I don’t think it was there for any long period of time,” he said.
We asked him if the red lights appearing on Watson’s chest were possible.
“It is possible, sure,” he replied.
Then we asked him to confirm that that was what led to the shooting: The chief responded, “That’s when he discharged his firearm.”
The Watson case has helped change Portsmouth police policy with the use of red gun laser sights.
“This case, and firearm instructor concerns, as well as executive staff, we have modified the policy and taken the lasers off the weapons,” Chief Hargis said.
Most stunning — the jury found police were unfair in how they pursued Watson.
“They absolutely did … he was put in a no win situation,” Barnes said.
For Brandon Watson, the incident turned his life upside down. He was unemployed for 10 months, and thinks under the circumstances, he deserves restitution.
“I begged them not to charge me … I knew what it meant … I got no jobs … no one would hire me after they ran the criminal background check, because I was charged with reckless handling of a firearm,” Watson said.
Watson continues moving forward with a possible lawsuit against the city of Portsmouth. The case would allege negligence or gross negligence.