Pontiac — In a case that attracted national attention and local outrage, a white Rochester Hills homeowner was convicted Friday for shooting at a lost black teenager who showed up at his door seeking directions to his school.
Jeffrey Zeigler, 53, was found guilty by a jury in Oakland County Circuit Court of assault with intent to commit great bodily harm less than murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony in the April 12 incident at his home involving 14-year-old Brennan Walker.
He had been charged with assault with intent to commit murder, but Judge Wendy Potts gave jurors the option of convicting Zeigler on the lesser charge.
Zeigler could get up to 10 years in prison for the assault conviction, plus a mandatory two years for the firearm count. Potts revoked his bond and ordered him to jail pending sentencing Nov. 13.
After the verdict was announced, Lisa Wright, Walker’s mother, was consoled by several friends who escorted her out a back door. She sniffled and sobbed frequently during the trial, especially when surveillance camera videos of her son were played for jurors.
Defense attorney Rob Morad said the prosecution did not prove an intent to murder or kill Walker.
“We were arguing for a felonious assault but we were pleased that the jury agreed that there was no intent to kill,” said Morad, who did not rule out an appeal.
“You had a couple who have had several breaking and enterings and were fearful. His wife’s screams put things in motion, but he loves her and was trying to protect her. I expect he wished he had done a lot of things differently.
“I know he wished he had never gone outside his house that morning.”
The incident sparked accusations in the community that it was racially motivated, with the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations calling at the time for “robust charges” against Zeigler, suggesting the homeowner acted “due to racial bias.”
In closing arguments Friday morning, assistant prosecutor Kelly Collins told the jury evidence indicates Walker, then a Rochester Hills High School freshman, was not injured but escaped fatal injury only because Zeigler was unable to immediately fire his 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun since the safety was engaged, giving Walker enough time to run for his life down the horseshoe driveway outside Zeigler’s home.
“There were choices made and choices have consequences,” Collins told the jury. “… He told you of his past and his credentials and how he is an upstanding citizen and homeowner who was broken into before … and how he felt he and his wife were in danger.
“He was the danger on April 12.”
During his closing statement, Morad, told jurors his client was firing into the air, not to harm anyone, and trying to protect his wife. He noted the shotgun had other rounds in it and Zeigler only fired once and never chased after Walker.
“If he wanted to kill him, he could have shot him on the porch,” Morad said.
More coverage: Tearful wife recounts husband’s gunfire incident with lost teenager
Zeigler, who spent more than 24 years with the Detroit fire department, testified things were “chaotic” that morning around 8:15 a.m. when he awoke from a sound sleep to his wife’s screams that someone was trying to break into their home at the front door. He ran down the stairs after seeing a man at the door and grabbed a loaded shotgun he kept behind his office door.
A home surveillance video captured him stepping out and pointing the weapon at Walker running down the driveway, and then lowering it when it didn’t fire and disengaging the safety, raising it again and firing off one round. Zeigler testified he was attempting to shoot off a “warning shot” to the fleeing man and anyone else who might have been trying to invade his home.
The video was making the rounds on social media Friday.
In early statements to police, Zeigler gave a different version: that he had slipped on the porch and the shotgun accidentally discharged. When confronted with his own video, Zeigler took a drink of water and told Oakland County Detective Shawn Pace, “I was tired of being a victim,” Pace testified this week.
Oakland County deputies responded to the breaking and entering as reported by Zeigler’s wife to a 911 operator. They encountered a “shaken-up” and tearful Walker on a nearby street in the subdivision.
Walker told them he had missed his school bus and decided to try to walk to school, cutting through an unfamiliar subdivision when he became lost. He stopped at one address for directions to the school, and becoming confused a second time, stopped at the Zeigler house.
The Zeiglers have lived in the house in the Christian Hills subdivision for more than 13 years. There have been five breaking and enterings or attempts, including one in which they were asleep in the home, Zeigler said. A teenage neighbor was prosecuted for three incidents in 2010.
Citizens have the right to protect themselves in their homes if they feel threatened by an intruder trying to break in a door or window. If a suspect is fleeing and there is no danger, shooting at them is a chargeable offense.
“Nothing justifies his actions that morning,” Collins told the jury.