Man who fired ‘warning’ shots headed to trial, despite claim of self-defense
TAYLORSVILLE, Utah – Black and white video captured by a home security camera shows two vehicles accelerating toward the exit of a Taylorsville townhouse complex as eight gunshots ring out in quick succession.
The video of the July 2020 shooting is a critical piece of evidence in the case that is now expected to advance to trial after a judge’s ruling Wednesday against dismissing the charges based on a claim of self-defense.
Faalae So’o, 39, is accused of firing several shots at the fleeing vehicles, wounding two then 18-year-old women inside an SUV and leaving one of them permanently paralyzed.
According to court documents, So’o told police after the two vehicles arrived at the complex, he witnessed a few people in the group vandalizing a neighbor’s car, he thought at least one person might have been armed, and he heard a noise he thought might have been a gunshot.
During a preliminary hearing in May 2021, Detective Zach Bench with the Unified Police Department recalled So’o telling him that So’o began to draw his firearm when a member of the group ran toward him, but then the individual retreated, and the group got back into the vehicles to drive away. According to a transcript of the court hearing, So’o told police someone in the group told him, “We’ll be back.”
The vehicles started to drive away, but then So’o reported seeing brake lights illuminate twice, Bench said. So’o told investigators he was aiming at the tires at the rear of one of the vehicles.
“He called it a warning shot because he wasn’t sure they were going to, you know, come back at that moment, or a later time,” Bench said, according to the transcript.
“Warning shots are not justified under Utah law.”
A judge relied, in part, on this video when he decided not to dismiss a case against a man who fired several shots at fleeing vehicles in 2020, leaving a woman paralyzed.
— Daniella Rivera KSL (@DaniellaKSL) April 6, 2022
So’o faces eight felony firearm-related charges, the most serious count being first-degree felony discharge of a firearm with serious bodily injury.
‘I can’t feel my legs’
During the same May hearing, Jatavia Smith testified that she was riding in the back seat of one of the vehicles and thought she and her friends were headed to a party, according to the transcript. She said she had no prior knowledge of plans to make a detour and so she stayed in the SUV while others started to vandalize the car.
“After they broke the windows, I was like, ‘OK. Guys, let’s just go.’ You know. And then we got in the car, and then as we were coming out, we heard a loud bang. And then that’s when started like — really, like, rushing to get out of there,” Smith testified, according to the transcript. “And then that’s when somebody, somewhere started shooting at us.”
According to the transcript, Smith said the final bullet ripped through the car and traveled straight through her T-12 vertebrae, severing her spinal cord and leaving her permanently paralyzed from the belly button down.
“When I first got shot, it felt like someone had slapped me in my back, and then everything went quiet. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t see anything,” she testified. “But then I felt my back wet. And I was like, there’s no way I just sweat this much. So I touch my back, and I look at my hand, and there’s blood all over my hand. And then the first thing I said was, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’”
She said another 18-year-old woman in the car then held up her arm revealing a bullet hole through her elbow.
Utah’s new self-defense law
So’o sought to have the case dismissed under Utah’s new self-defense law that went into effect in May 2021, nearly a year after the shooting. The law triggers a new pre-trial process for cases in which the accused claims self-defense.
Under HB227, prosecutors must now prove by clear and convincing evidence in a pre-trial hearing that the defendant did not act in self-defense or in the defense of others. If prosecutors cannot prove that an individual’s use of force was not justified during the justification hearing, the case is dismissed before it ever goes to a jury.
In November, the KSL Investigators first reported on unintended consequences of the controversial new law, a near copy-paste of a Florida statute.
So’o filed a motion for a justification hearing in July 2021. The hearing was held in December and continued with arguments from attorneys during another hearing on Wednesday.
‘Warning shots are not justified’
During Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutor Melanie Serassio reminded the judge about Smith’s prior testimony.
“It was the last shot that she heard when she then felt herself getting shot,” said Serassio. “So, if even conceivably one shot was justified – which the state argues it was not – eight shots were not justified.”
She argued So’o was angry at the vandals, rather than scared for his safety or the safety of others.
“She’s paralyzed for life based on the defendant’s decision that he was angry at the situation, and that he was going to take this into his own hands and show these people not to come back and not to do anything like this in his, in that complex,” said Serassio.
So’o’s defense attorney, Christine Seaman, noted witness testimony that corroborated So’o’s account of hearing a loud noise that could have been a gunshot, as well as the possibility that one of the individuals had a weapon. She said his actions were reasonable, under the circumstances.
“He didn’t put himself in this situation,” said Seaman. “He didn’t do anything to create this threat, to create the terror that was going on. He was simply trying to get rid of the threat and to deal with it the best that he could.”
Third District Court Judge William Kendall denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the case, saying that evidence presented by prosecutors showed So’o and his family were not in imminent danger when he opened fire.
“Warning shots are not justified under Utah law,” Kendall said.
Today’s ruling is interesting. We saw the opposite outcome in a similar case last month: https://t.co/bfXNKgd7Ww
— Daniella Rivera KSL (@DaniellaKSL) April 6, 2022
The ruling represents a win for prosecutors, but under the new law, they are prohibited from relying on the outcome of the justification hearing during a jury trial. So’o will be able to once again claim self-defense.
The decision comes a month after a different judge ruled in favor of a man who also fired shots at a vehicle and claimed self-defense. In that case, a stray bullet narrowly missed a child in a nearby, uninvolved vehicle. The judge said he felt a jury should decide whether the man acted in self-defense, but the new law ‘tied’ his hands.
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