RENO, Nev. — A Nevada man who was accused of murder after confronting two unarmed trespassers with a deadly barrage of gunfire at a vacant duplex he owns was found not guilty Friday of all charges in the latest case to test the boundaries of stand-your-ground self-defense laws.
Wayne Burgarello, 74, a retired Sparks school teacher, insisted he was acting in self-defense in February 2014 when he shot and killed Cody Devine and seriously wounded Janai Wilson.
A jury in Reno deliberated for six hours before finding him not guilty on a charge of attempted murder as well as four alternative charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.
“It’s going to be OK,” Burgarello said as he laughed with family members outside the Washoe County courtroom after hugging his lawyer after the clerk’s reading of the verdicts.
Burgarello would have faced up to life in prison without parole on the charge of First-degree Murder.
A friend of the Devine family who now serves as a victims advocate in Minnesota said state lawmakers need to re-examine “how these stand-your-ground laws have led to unjust homicides.”
“Justice was not served today,” said the Rev. Howard Dotson, a former Sparks minister. “Cody Devine did not deserve to die for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Assistant District Attorney Bruce Hahn had argued First-degree Murder was warranted because Burgarello acted with premeditation in the February 2014 shooting. He declined to comment on whether he was surprised by the verdicts.
“The Sparks Police Department did a tremendous investigative effort and we’re grateful for the jury’s service,” he told The Associated Press.
Defense attorney Theresa Ristenpart told reporters Burgarello wanted to go home with his loved ones after a long day and had no further comment.
“We’d just like to say thank you to the jury for finally seeing what this case was about, which is justified self-defense,” Ristenpart said. “He did what he had to do to protect his own life.”
Hahn said Burgarello wanted to exact revenge for repeated burglaries and vandalism at the rental unit he largely abandoned nine years ago in a working-class neighborhood just east of Reno.
“There was going to be a deadly confrontation,” Hahn said during closing arguments. “He was mad. Somebody was going to pay.”
Wilson testified during the two-week trial that she stayed at the duplex off and on for three years. She said Burgarello opened fire without provocation while she and Devine were sleeping in a makeshift bed on the floor.
Neither trespasser had a firearm, but Burgarello told police Devine’s arm “came up like a gun.” Ristenpart said he might have mistaken a black flashlight found at the scene for a gun and had only a split second to respond.
Burgarello did not take the stand, but jurors saw a video of his interrogation by detectives. “I was trying to protect my own life,” he said. “Since they were there in a threatening manner, I reacted.”
Ristenpart said it was Devine and Wilson, not Burgarello, who “created the dangerous, threatening situation, trespassing, getting high on meth and being where they shouldn’t be, where they had no right to be.”
“The state wants you to find Wayne was the aggressor for going into his own home. That’s not being aggressive. That’s your right,” she said.
Hahn said the trespassers had no business being there, but they did nothing to threaten Burgarello and didn’t deserve to be “shot like fish in a barrel on the floor.”
Devine was shot five times, including once in the head. Wilson was shot in her leg, arm and stomach. “It wasn’t one or two (shots), then we’ll talk. It was eight rounds,” Hahn said. “It was open season.”
Two neighbors testified Burgarello told them years ago he might arm himself and wait for people responsible for repeated break-ins.
“This had been rolling around in this man’s mind for several years,” Hahn said.
Nevada’s stand-your-ground law allows property owners to use deadly force against attackers who pose an imminent threat, regardless of whether they are armed. But it specifies the shooter cannot be the initial aggressor.
More than 30 states have adopted or strengthened stand-your-ground laws since Florida expanded its law in 2005 to allow deadly force outside the home. Interpretation of those laws has been controversial since a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s 2012 shooting death.
Earlier this year, a judge made it clear Montana’s Stand-Your-Ground law has limits when he sentenced Markus Kaarma to 70 years in the 2014 killing of a teenager. Prosecutors argued Kaarma couldn’t claim self-defense because he was intent on setting a trap for a burglar in his garage.
In a similar Minnesota case, Byron Smith was convicted of premeditated murder last year for lying in wait in his basement and killing two teens who broke in.