A 24-year-old Finley man believed he and his grandfather were in danger when he fatally shot his uncle during a family dispute, law enforcement officials said Friday.
Timothy Brown will not face criminal charges in the March 22 death of Jerry L. Barton.
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said Brown’s claims that he was acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger were corroborated by witnesses at the shooting scene.
Barton, 53, immediately died after being hit with a bullet from a .25-caliber handgun.
“I further find that Timothy Brown used reasonable force when he fired one shot at Mr. Barton while in Mr. Barton’s grasp,” Miller said. “Therefore, the homicide involving Jerry Barton was justifiable under Washington state law.”
Miller said the key witnesses didn’t have time to compare stories “thanks to the extremely fast response of the sheriff’s office to the scene.” They all were separated and gave matching statements to deputies, he said.
The county’s top cop explained his decision during a brief news conference at the Benton County Justice Center. He was joined by sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Dan McCary and Coroner John Hansens.
Attorney Scott Johnson, who was hired by Brown during the investigation, did not attend the news conference. He received notice of the decision at the same time it was announced publicly, and called his client with the news.
“(Brown) was relieved with the decision,” Johnson told the Herald. “I think he and I both fully expected that was the decision the prosecutor’s office would make, but until it is made there is that uncertainty that makes it difficult.”
According to authorities, Barton got angry with his stepfather, Oliver James Smith, while they were working on irrigation equipment.
Smith, 74, is Brown’s grandfather. Barton is his wife’s natural son.
The three men live on the same property at 196905 E. Bowles Road.
Smith reportedly told Barton he wasn’t going to listen to him and walked to his ATV to leave. Barton then grabbed him, jerked him off the four-wheeler and threw him on the ground, where he sat on Smith and started beating on the older man’s chest, Miller wrote in his decision.
Smith told investigators that he was afraid and he yelled to his grandson for help.
In Brown’s statement to sheriff’s deputies, he said he heard the argument from the adjoining property and saw Barton grab his grandfather and throw him to the ground. Barton then straddled Smith and roughed him up, Brown recalled.
The grandson ran to help while sister Tifanicq Bottineau said she was calling the cops.
Brown said he fired two “warning shots” before reaching the two men. He then pointed his handgun at Barton and give him an opportunity to stop the assault, but Barton lunged toward the younger man and grabbed onto his wrists.
Smith said he couldn’t see well what happened next since his glasses were knocked off during the scuffle, but he was able to see Barton shove Brown and swing at him, Miller wrote.
Brown later told detectives he believed that Barton was going to hurt him or his grandfather, so he fired one shot into his uncle’s chest.
Brown knew of Barton’s temper and his past assaults on Smith and felt he had no other choice, Miller said in the news conference. Smith previously had been seriously injured by his stepson, but those assaults were never reported to authorities.
Sheriff’s deputies were called to the property shortly after 2 p.m.
Smith was still on the ground when deputies arrived and he had to be taken to a hospital for treatment.
Brown was detained for questioning, but released hours later while authorities further investigated his claims that he acted in self-defense. His grandfather and his sister both corroborated his statement.
Bottineau reported that she was working by the pump house with Brown when she heard Barton and Smith arguing. She said she yelled to them that she was calling the cops as her brother ran to give aid to their grandfather.
However, Bottineau did not fully see Barton turn on her brother because her young son had come to her at that time, Miller said.
An autopsy performed on Barton the following day showed that he died from a gunshot wound to the heart, Coroner Hansens reported.
Investigators confirmed that the shooting scene was visible from the pump house area, and in walking the grounds found a holster between the two locations. It is believed that’s where Brown pulled out his handgun to fire the warning shots.
The number of rounds left in Brown’s gun also were consistent with his story and him firing the gun a total of three times, Miller said.
A person has the right to defend himself or anyone in his presence with reasonable force if they believe there is “an imminent danger” of substantial harm, he said.
“Based on all that information, under Washington state law it is clear that Mr. Brown’s actions were legally justified, and probably were the actions that those of us at this table probably would have taken in the same situation,” Miller said. “ This decision was made easier by the thoroughness and completeness of that investigation.”
Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer