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September 29, 2008

Road Rage

On August 5 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, a quiet morning erupted in tragedy when Special Agent Donald Pettit was shot and killed in the parking lot of a post office by James Patrick Wonder. Pettit, who was employed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was traveling along a Florida highway with his 12-year-old daughter when an incident of road rage led to a needless death.

For miles, Pettit and Wonder participated in an aggressive game of “chicken,” cutting off each other’s cars, slamming on brakes, and cursing heavily. When Wonder pulled over into the parking lot of a local post office, Pettit followed him.

The two men exited their cars and an argument ensued. Wonder, a concealed carry permit holder in the state of Florida, then drew his handgun and shot Pettit, who was unarmed, in the back of the head. While Pettit’s daughter looked on in horror, Wonder went back to his vehicle and fled the scene, leaving the federal agent to die.

Wonder attempted to elude police by dying his hair and driving in a rental car, but after a massive 24-hour manhunt, he was apprehended by authorities at a dialysis clinic thanks to an anonymous tip. “We told you we would get you,” said Pembroke Pines Deputy Chief Mike Segarra to a cheering crowd of law enforcement officers at a press conference later that evening. Police recovered several handguns from Wonder’s home, including the weapon they believe was used to shoot Pettit.

While Wonder was initially charged with premeditated murder and held without bond, on August 28, a Broward County grand jury indicted him on a lesser charge, manslaughter. Wonder then posted $10,000 bond and was released from jail. He now faces a maximum of 15 years imprisonment. Had he been charged with premeditated murder, Wonder could have received life in prison or the death penalty.

Frank Maister, an attorney for Wonder, expressed disappointment that the grand jury chose to indict his client. He also indicated he will argue his client acted in self-defense. He might have a strong case due to a Florida law that lowered the standard for using deadly force in public places. Previously, Florida law required citizens to retreat from a situation in which they felt threatened if they could do so safely. Florida’s 2005 “Shoot First” statute, however, changed the law so that, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any…place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

Clearly, both Wonder and Pettit were at fault that day for allowing their road rage to escalate into dangerous behavior, and Pettit was wrong for following Wonder into a parking lot and confronting him. Beyond that, however, we are left with several important questions… Why didn’t Wonder call the police or drive to a police station if he was being followed by Pettit? If he was being actively attacked by Pettit, then why was Wonder uninjured, and why was the fatal bullet wound in the back of Pettit’s head? Most importantly, why would a man who acted legitimately in self-defense flee a crime scene (leaving a child to deal with her dead father) and attempt to evade police capture by ditching his car and disguising his appearance?

No matter what answers we eventually find, the sad fact is that no one had to die that day. The presence of a handgun during a moment of passion turned what should have been a shouting match or at worst a scuffle into a fatality that has left a family “destroyed.”

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