When Andre Warren shot and killed Dominique Thomas last July, this wasn’t the first time the two Akron men had exchanged gunfire.
A few years before, Thomas drove up to Warren’s car and fired shots at him, striking his arm. Another time, someone shot up the passenger side of Warren’s car, with Warren suspecting either Thomas or his friends were responsible.
So, with this bad blood, Warren shot first when he saw Thomas that summer morning.
That’s the explanation John Greven, Warren’s attorney, gave in court Wednesday for the shooting that left Thomas dead and another man injured.
“He acted in self-defense,” Greven said in his opening statement in Warren’s murder trial.
Prosecutors, however, said Warren shot Thomas without provocation.
“The real question is: Was he justified in doing what he did?” said Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Jay Cole. “Self-defense does not give you the right to shoot other people.”
Warren, 28, is the first person to claim self-defense in a murder trial in Summit County since a new state law became effective March 28 that put the burden of proof in self-defense cases on the prosecution rather than the defense. This means prosecutors must prove the defendant wasn’t justified in using deadly force.
The new law has already had implications across Ohio, including in Cuyahoga County, where prosecutors dropped charges in a murder case in which the defendant claimed self-defense. In Summit County, the last several murder trials in which the defendant argued self-defense resulted in convictions. These trials, though, were prior to the law change.
Warren is charged with two counts of murder — involving different parts of state law — three counts of felonious assault, and one count each of having weapons while under disability, carrying a concealed weapon and escape.
Bryan Darshawn Esters, 28, of Akron, a second man indicted for murder and other charges in the Thomas shooting, remains at large.
Thomas’ shooting happened July 1 and was part of a string of shootings that occurred around the Fourth of July in Akron. Six people were killed in less than two weeks, including one incident in which three teenage boys were shot and a fourth was killed.
Cole said Thomas, 31, was shot about 11:20 a.m. outside of Julian’s, a restaurant in the Goodyear Heights neighborhood where he had planned to go to breakfast with his cousin, Monica Strickland, and her boyfriend at the time, Tra’Shaun Beasley.
Cole said Warren, who had just gotten takeout from the restaurant, shot Thomas as soon as he got out of the car and then shot Beasley. He said Esters also shot Thomas.
The shooting was captured by surveillance cameras inside and outside Julian’s. Cole said the videos show Thomas dropped a gun but didn’t brandish it before the shooting.
“No force was used against him,” Cole said of Warren. “He simply sees someone he has a beef with — and decides he’s going to take matters into his own hands.”
Greven admitted that Warren is guilty of having weapons while under disability, carrying a concealed weapon and escape for removing his GPS ankle device after the shooting. He argued, however, that Warren should be acquitted of the other charges.
Greven said the feud between Warren and Thomas lessened when the two men were in different state prisons but renewed when they were released. He said Thomas threatened Warren on social media, saying things like, “I’m going to turn that white T-shirt red.”
Greven said Warren saw a car with tinted windows pull up outside Julian’s and then saw Thomas who had shot him before and had threatened to kill him. He said Warren noticed Thomas move his hand and assumed he was reaching for a gun.
“You have to ask yourself: Was it reasonable for Warren to be in fear for his life,” Greven told the jurors. “When you see all the evidence, you’re going to agree it was.”
The trial in Summit County Common Pleas Judge Alison Breaux’s courtroom will resume Thursday and is expected to last through Monday.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.