In 2013 a jury in Bexar County, Texas affirmed that state law allows a man to pay a supposed prostitute for illegal sex, and then kill her if she tries to leave without providing what he thought he paid for.
That’s what happened in the case of Ezekiel Gilbert, who was tried and acquitted for the murder of 23-year-old Lenora Frago, an “escort” he had chosen on Craigslist.
An “escort” is killed
The Craigslist listing was for “escort services,” and offered 30 minutes of the escort’s time for a fee of $150. Gilbert believed that the “services” to be provided would include sex, although this was never explicitly stated and in Texas would be illegal. In fact, according to Kurt Eichenwald writing in Vanity Fair, Frago’s employer, Christopher Perkins (whom defense attorneys labeled as her pimp) testified in court that he never allowed his escorts to promise sex, and immediately fired them if they engaged in it with a customer. He contended that all Gilbert had been promised for his $150 was 30 minutes of Frago’s time, and that’s exactly what he got.
When Frago arose to leave after the allotted time, but without having provided sex, Gilbert became enraged. He grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle, followed her out to the car where Perkins was waiting as her driver, and fired at the car four times, hitting Frago in the neck. She was paralyzed, and died seven months later from her injuries. Gilbert was arrested and charged with murder. If convicted, he could have received life in prison.
Texas law says the killing was not a crime
But this was Texas, where, as Time Magazine notes, state law allows any citizen with a gun to use deadly force to stop someone “who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property.” Since the incident happened at 4:30 in the morning (nighttime), and Frago was attempting to leave (escaping) without returning Gilbert’s $150 (theft), the jury concluded that he was justified under the law in shooting her.
(To be fair, Gilbert claimed in his defense that although he shot four times into the car in which Frago was sitting, he didn’t really intend to kill her).
A law that gives citizens permission to kill
According to Think Progress, the Texas law allows a citizen to use deadly force if he “reasonably thinks” property is being stolen and it cannot be protected in any other way. It also justifies use of deadly force in cases of “criminal mischief in the nighttime.” As Vanity Fair’s Eichenwald notes, this means that “under Texas law, if I see some kid getting ready to spray-paint his name on an underpass after dark, I can kill him.”
In my opinion, to call this decision by the jury, as well as the law on which it is based, a travesty is to be exceedingly generous. Outrageous and unfathomable would perhaps be more appropriate words. A man solicits a woman to provide a clearly illegal service. When the woman does exactly what she agreed to do, pockets her fee, and attempts to leave, but without engaging in the illegal activity the man wanted, he kills her. And under Texas law, says the jury, that’s perfectly OK.
A dangerous law that should be changed
It’s clear to me that this law, with the great latitude it allows ordinary citizens to “reasonably think” deadly force is justified, will result in the unnecessary deaths of many people who have not committed any capital offense. According to Time Magazine, Texas had 146 cases of justifiable homicide by private citizens in the period 2002 to 2006. After Governor Rick Perry expanded the latitude allowed in the law for citizens to use lethal force in 2007, the number of justifiable homicides rose by more than 50 percent to 224 during the years 2007 to 2011. In my opinion, it’s entirely predictable that if the law is not changed, that rate will continue to rise.
The case of Ezekiel Gilbert, a man set free after killing an unarmed 23-year-old mother of a young daughter who was in no way threatening him, ought to be a wake-up call for Texas and other states that have enacted laws that essentially encourage citizens to use lethal force when they “reasonably think” their property is threatened.
Otherwise, the “wild west” won’t just appear on our movie and television screens. It will be the reality on our streets.
Ron Franklin is a pastor, writer, radio broadcaster and producer, computer programmer, and musician. Now the founding pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, PA, he was an engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Denver Theological Seminary.