The case of a white Oklahoma merchant recently convicted of killing a black teenager attempting to rob his store has sparked a national debate.
To critics, 59-year-old pharmacist Jerome Ersland is a gun-toting vigilante who dealt out his own brand of murderous justice. To admirers, Ersland is a courageous and law-abiding hero whose actions were justified. The controversial case became even more volatile Thursday when a jury found Ersland guilty of first-degree murder for the 2009 slaying of 16-year-old Antwun Parker.
Since last week's verdict, supporters of Ersland have collected nearly 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for his release. Oklahoma State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) also pledged his assistance.
"I'm gonna spend the rest of my career, however long it may be, trying to right this wrong," Shortey told ABC News.
The division is also evident online, within several social media websites. One group in support of Ersland recently popped up on Facebook. Titled "Jerome Ersland should not have been found guilty," the group has more than 3,000 members. Groups against Ersland's release, such as the Facebook group "Do Not Free Jerome Ersland," are also starting to gain momentum, The Daily Mail reported.
The controversy in the case stems from a May 19, 2009, incident in which Parker and another young man who was armed with a handgun burst into Reliable Discount Pharmacy in Oklahoma City. The men allegedly ordered two female employees working behind the counter to give them money and drugs. Instead, the two women ran to the back of the store.
The man with Parker then allegedly pointed his gun at Ersland. The pharmacist drew his own weapon, a small semiautomatic handgun he had in his pocket, and fired at Parker, who was unarmed, striking the youth in the head. Surveillance video from inside the store captured Parker's fall to the ground as Ersland chased his accomplice from the store.
When Ersland stepped back inside the store, he retrieved a Kel-Tec .380 from a nearby drawer and shot Parker five more times. The shooting occurred off camera, so Parker's posture at the time remains unclear.
On the night of the shooting, Ersland told detectives both Parker and the other teen were armed and said that both of them had fired at him.
"I feel that [people have] a right to defend themselves at their home or at their work. People deserve to be safe and not be afraid of people [who] want to take money when they don't work for it," Ersland said in a May 22, 2009, interview with The Oklahoman.
"That's what the Second Amendment and the state's concealed carry license are for," he continued.
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During Ersland's trial, his lawyer, Irven Box, claimed the shooting was self-defense. He said Parker was still moving and was still a threat.
"He eliminated the armed robber," Box said in court.
Prosecutors, however, argued that Ersland acted beyond the limits of self-defense. A detective also testified that Parker was not armed during the robbery and said that Ersland's statement that he had been fired on by the teens was not supported by the evidence in the case.
"This defendant was absolutely not defending himself or anyone else," Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Chance told the jury.
The jury deliberated for more than four hours before it found Ersland guilty and recommended a sentence of life in prison for the former Air Force lieutenant colonel.
Ersland is scheduled for formal sentencing on July 11. If the judge follows the jury's recommendation, he will not be eligible for parole until he serves at least 38 years behind bars.
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