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Jury rules that shooting is self-defense

Originally ran here as:
"Farm worker acquitted of murder charges"
by Gary McElroy, Staff Writer
Mobil Register
December 20, 2001

MOBILE, ALABAMA -- Jury apparently accepted contention that shooting was an act of self-defense

Mexican national Miguel Samaniego-Lopez killed two men and wounded another at a Wilmer nightclub in self-de fense, a jury decided Wednesday.

After less than four hours of deliberation, the Mobile County Circuit Court jury found Samaniego-Lopez not guilty on two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

Samaniego-Lopez, 30, who had been held in the Mobile County Metro Jail since shortly after his arrest more than a year ago, was expected to be heading for his home near Monterey, Mexico, to day.

"I have his passport," Mobile attorney Dom Soto said following the verdict. "I am going to give it to him, buy him a ticket, put him on a bus and tell him to leave town."

Samaniego-Lopez, who came to Mobile County last year under a government work program, was accused in the Sept. 30, 2000, shooting deaths of Phillip Daniel Pettus, 30, and Christopher Neal, 29, and wounding Neal's brother, 42-year-old Craig Christian.

The defendant admitted shooting the men but claimed self-defense, telling jurors on Tuesday he believed those men intended to harm him.

The incident occurred in the parking lot of the Country Club Lounge on Moffett Road after several men belligerently followed Samaniego-Lopez out of the bar, shoving him, according to witnesses.

Seconds later, the defendant testified, he opened fire with a .38-caliber revolver out of fear the men themselves were going for guns.

Following the verdict, as many family members of the dead men reacted with shock, Christian was overheard telling them that Samaniego-Lopez had his day in court and had admitted what he did. Now they had to put it behind them, Christian said.

Shortly afterward, he began crying.

In closing arguments Wednes day morning, Assistant District Attorney Jill Phillips characterized the shoving outside the club as "a light push ... a push is not deadly physical force." She told jurors that when accosted by the men, Samaniego-Lopez was first obligated to flee or "he could have turned around and fought" without using a weapon.

Lead prosecutor George Hardesty Jr., said the men had "asked him to leave" but had not threatened to kill Samaniego-Lopez.

"He fired first," Hardesty said of the defendant, and he accused defense attorneys of "reliving the Alamo" when they recalled evidence suggesting that the incident was initiated because several men in the bar resented Samaniego-Lopez's Mexican heritage.

Recalling that Christian, Neal and others surrounded and accosted Samaniego-Lopez in the bar a few hours before the shooting, Hardesty said that he, too, "would feel a little threatened there." Yet the defendant showed no sign that he was frightened and afterward continued to play pool, the prosecutor said.

Defense attorney John Cherry told jurors that .25-caliber semiautomatic shell casings were found in the parking lot after the shooting, indicating that someone else other than his client also was firing a gun that night.

He mocked prosecutors' claims that the men were merely "escorting" Samaniego-Lopez out of the bar that night.

Cherry told jurors they were obligated to consider Samaniego- Lopez's state of mind as the incident took shape.

"What did Miguel reasonably think was going to happen out there?" Cherry asked, recalling bar owner Lisa Perry's testimony that earlier that same night, Samaniego-Lopez saw another Mexican he didn't know brought into the bar after suffering a severe beating in the parking lot.

Perry later testified that six men surrounded Samaniego-Lopez at the bar, shoving and cursing him, accusing him of asking a white woman to dance.

The men who followed his client out of the bar were "planning to beat him up like the other fellow -- you know it," Cherry told jurors. "What they didn't count on was that he would defend himself."

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