Lesson: It’s hard to have to kill. It’s harder when the bad guy is someone you know … and when your defense of family and self is called murder.
October 9, 2018. Seth Casteel and his wife, Jessica, and their six kids receive a visit from an old friend from their high school days. Rocky Russell has brought his girlfriend and her progeny. The kids spend time together as the adults, all in their 30s, catch up at a pleasant gathering around an outdoor fire, with the children toasting S’Mores.
The Casteels are delighted to see their old friend after so many years. They don’t know Rocky’s military career in Afghanistan has affected him profoundly, seeing him institutionalized for 18 days at one point to treat his PTSD. They won’t know until later, when it’s too late, he has gotten into drugs recently and beaten the hell out of his girlfriend. Seth is limiting himself to no more than one beer per hour, but Rocky is pounding down the booze, and it’s starting to show.
These old friends speak of old times. Seth mentions to Rocky that he’s the kind of guy Seth would want to take care of his wife and kids if something happened to him. Rocky becomes morose and answers he is a bad person who has done bad things. Seth tells him to STFU, he knows Rocky is a good man. Rocky starts muttering over and over, “Shut the f___ up.”
Rocky is 6’1″ and weighs 215 muscular pounds; Seth is 5’5″ tall and weighs 135. Suddenly, Rocky is standing, looming over Seth from a foot away and looking over Seth’s head with a thousand-yard stare.
And now, without warning, Rocky smashes his left fist into Seth’s face.
The brutal blow is delivered full power, with Rocky’s entire body weight behind it. The punch rocks Seth backward, and to keep from falling, he grabs Rocky’s shirt. The two of them fall together, with Seth under the larger man. Seth’s tongue can feel his two front teeth bent backward horizontally over his tongue by the punch. They roll on the ground together.
They separate for a moment. Rocky grabs Seth, swings him around and throws him. Seth is too stunned to remember it later, but one witness claims to see Seth thrown bodily through the air. Rocky tackles him full power, and they’re on the ground again, Seth is on the bottom once more. The larger man punches the smaller one, again and again.
As suddenly as he has begun the assault, Rocky breaks it off. He stands and walks away from Seth for a moment, picking up chairs and throwing them. Rocky blurts, “It’s him or me!”
Seth’s wife goes to him, puts an arm around him, and helps him toward the house. Seth’s mind is racing. Rocky seems to have gone crazy. What if he attacks Mrs. Casteel? Or one of the children?
Everyone, including Rocky’s own girlfriend, tells him to leave. He stubbornly refuses. Seth leans against a wall to catch his breath and gather his thoughts. He decides that a gun might be a deterrent. He goes into the house and heads for the bedroom.
A part-time gunsmith, Seth owns about 70 firearms, mainly rifles and shotguns. He has only two handguns, a Makarov and a Para Ordnance GI Expert 1911 .45, and keeps the latter loaded and cocked and locked in a Serpa holster. Seth, a southpaw, retrieves the pistol and puts it in his left side pants pocket and then heads outside.
His kids stare in horror at Seth’s bloody, broken face. He assures them he is okay and tells them to go inside for safety. Seth is outside now, by the grill in the carport and not far from the door.
Seth sees Rocky behind the wheel of his car, arguing with his girlfriend, who is begging him not to drive drunk. Their argument becomes loud. Rocky gets out of the car and approaches Seth. Seth and the girlfriend are both telling Rocky urgently he has to leave.
Instead, Rocky goes straight to Seth and delivers a brutal punch to the jaw.
It’s a knockout. Whether it was the fist to the jaw that did it or Seth’s head hitting the concrete, he has lost consciousness.
Seth awakens down on the concrete in time to see Rocky throw Jessica against the wall. Seth’s worst fears are confirmed: His wife is now under attack. As he rolls to the side to push himself up, Seth’s right hand falls on the 1911 and he realizes it must have slipped from his pocket when he was knocked out. He picks it up in his non-dominant right hand as he struggles up to a standing position.
Having seen Rocky throw Jessica against the wall, Seth is no sooner standing than Rocky turns toward him, clenches his fists, and starts coming forward. Seth knows he can’t let him get hold of the gun.
He raises his right hand, thumbs down the safety, and fires a single shot.
Rocky collapses instantly to the concrete floor of the carport.
And now, Seth finds himself on his knees next to Rocky’s motionless body. He on-safes the .45, sets it down, and bursts into uncontrollable sobbing as he blurts over and over again, “My God! My God!”
That’s how the first responding law enforcement officer finds him. Seth Casteel is arrested and ultimately charged with murder.
Preparing The Defense
The authorities apparently couldn’t see past “unarmed man shot.” Seth and Jess hired John Colley of Columbia, Tenn. as a defense attorney. It was a wise choice. I had done a manslaughter case a decade before with John, which concluded with a complete acquittal by the jury in record time. Colley approached this case with the same strategy he had used with that one: dismantle the State’s case meticulously piece by piece, and, just as precisely, build Seth Casteel’s case for lawful self-defense. There were many issues to deal with, some more subtle than others.
Issues And Answers
Most of the following comes verbatim from my pre-trial report in this case. It is offered here to encapsulate the issues.
Size and weight disparity greatly favored the deceased, Mr. Russell, over the defendant, Mr. Casteel. According to the arrest report, at the ime, Mr. Casteel stood 5’5″ tall and weighed 135 lbs. At autopsy, Mr. Russell was found to be 73″ tall (6’1″) and to weigh 215 lbs.
In use of force training, the prevalent size and weight chart used to determine disparity of force was created by Juste David Myers for his book Close Quarter Combat and was popularized in John Peters’ police training textbook Defensive Tactics With Flashlights. That chart (was) appended to this report.
By this standard, Casteel would be listed as a size “Small,” and Russell would be categorized as a size “Large.” According to the Myers chart, a person Casteel’s size would have only a 30% chance of surviving a homicidal bare-handed assault by a committed aggressor.
Disparity in ability to fight and cause physical harm also favored Russell over Casteel. Mr. Casteel told me he does not recall having any training in hand-to-hand combat or physical restraint of violent people. Mr. Russell was a trained soldier who had done tours overseas in a combat zone. He had experienced things sufficiently dire to have left him with what his significant other perceived as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder requiring treatment. Even had they been equal in physical size and strength, one would expect a trained combatant and veteran of war zones to have significantly greater fighting abilities than a man with zero experience in such matters.
Moreover, the escalating violence in the minutes prior to the shooting had clearly demonstrated Mr. Russell’s dramatically greater fighting skill compared to Mr. Casteel’s. In their first encounter, Russell had caused Casteel to be seen “flying through the air,” according to eyewitness testimony. In the third and penultimate physical conflict, the one directly prior to the shooting, Russell had knocked Casteel unconscious with a single, powerful punch to the left side of the face, which left him prostrate on the concrete floor of the carport where the shooting took place soon thereafter.
It is my considered opinion this would leave any rational person in Casteel’s situation with the conclusion he would not be able to use his bare hands to stop Russell from killing or gravely injuring him and possibly others.
Having been decisively overpowered in the first two of the four encounters in this chain of events would support Casteel’s conclusion he needed to arm himself to deter Mr. Russell from further escalating physical violence. He had reportedly armed himself between the second encounter and the third, in which he was knocked unconscious, and the pistol he had just retrieved fell from his pocket to the floor of the carport.
On June 22, 2021, while visiting the shooting scene and doing a “walk-through” re-enactment of the shooting, I performed a demonstrative evidence video to illustrate that point. At the actual shooting scene, Mr. Casteel stood where he recalled standing when he fired the shot in question, and he placed me where he recalled Mr. Russell standing at the moment the shot was fired. We measured that distance, which turned out to be some 103″, torso to torso.
I had Mr. Casteel hold a dummy gun exactly replicating the size and shape of the weapon in evidence, a Para Ordnance 1911 .45 caliber pistol, extended at arm’s length in his right hand as he recalled holding the weapon. From the position he recalled Russell being in, I then lunged forward to disarm him. We subsequently overlaid an app called “Coach’s Eye” to break down the movements to 1/100th of one second. That video was titled Ayoob Demo, Tennessee v. Casteel. The breakdown is as follows.
As best I can determine by eye, my movement forward toward Mr. Casteel begins at 12.69 seconds on the video counter.
By 13.86 seconds, from Mr. Russell’s position, I have closed the gap between us, used my left hand to deflect Casteel’s gun away from me and to grasp his wrist, and have pivoted my torso away from the gun muzzle. At this point, shooting me is no longer his option — 1.17 seconds have elapsed since I began the forward movement.
At 14.60 seconds, I have stripped the pistol from Mr. Casteel’s hand, as evidenced by my right elbow now pulling back away from him, the gun in my hand. What had been his gun hand is now trapped against my chest. An additional 0.74 seconds have elapsed.
At 15.50 seconds, 0.90 seconds later, I have turned the gun in my hand into firing position; have put his gun hand in a wristlock to keep him from grabbing the gun back, and my finger is pulling the trigger of the dummy gun. The gun muzzle is oriented to the center of his head for what would be a presumably fatal gunshot wound to the brain.
The total elapsed time from beginning to move forward to “shooting” Mr. Casteel through the brain with his own gun has been 2.81 seconds.
Therefore, I believe I can testify to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that if Mr. Casteel had not fired when he did, he could have been disarmed and shot to death with his own gun in three seconds or less.
The escalating violence of Mr. Russell toward Mr. Casteel showed no signs of diminishing. Russell’s assaultive behavior had escalated from manhandling Casteel to rendering him unconscious with no sign of remorse. At the time the single, fatal shot was fired, Russell was approaching Casteel in a manner that could only reasonably be construed as an intent to disarm and cause further harm. In the final moments before Casteel fired, there is nothing in the discovery materials that indicates to me anything other than escalating, potentially homicidal violence in Russell’s behavior.
The autopsy conducted by Dr. Tashjian, the forensic pathologist, states, “Direction of projectile — anterior to posterior, superior to inferior, and right to left.” The bullet traveling front to back, downward, and from the right side of the body toward the left side can be oriented to the gun and the person holding it. It is consistent with a man moving forward with his head and torso aggressively forward. This, in turn, is consistent with an attack posture in relation to the person holding the gun and also consistent with the defendant’s account of Mr. Russell moving aggressively toward him when the defendant fired.
As to Casteel having been drinking beer before the shooting: Only the jury can determine the reasonableness of Casteel’s actions with an understanding of the dynamics of violent encounters. The doctrine of competing harms, aka doctrine of necessity and doctrine of two evils, forgives one for breaking laws or rules in the rare circumstance where following those laws or rules would cause more human injury to the innocent than breaking them. The actions, not the alcohol, determine. “Alcohol on board” does not automatically indicate bad judgment. If the jury concurs with the defense that Casteel’s actions were those any reasonable, prudent person might have taken under the circumstances, his blood alcohol content becomes irrelevant.
The Commonwealth Attorney’s office apparently became increasingly aware of how flawed their Murder case against Seth Casteel actually was. In January of 2022, Seth accepted a plea of guilty to reckless homicide with a sentence of probation. This charge generally carries a two- to four-year prison sentence in Tennessee; Seth got zero time served, an almost incredibly good plea bargain for the defendant. While I was confident we were going to win at trial, I can understand why he made that decision. A conviction would have taken him away from his wife and children for many, many years. I firmly believe even the most “ironclad” case has a 10% disaster factor: a rogue juror blind to the facts, a surprise witness who lies but is believed, etc. Here, there were other factors. One was “sympathetic victim.” Rocky was, after all, a heroic veteran who’d fought for his country. While Seth’s alcohol consumption was low that night, there is always the chance of a juror who is the kind of teetotaler who thinks anyone who drinks more than he does is an out-of-control alcoholic. Seth’s collapse next to the body and his anguished cries of “My God!” could be misconstrued as an admission of wrongdoing, as a similar action was apparently construed in the case during the same timeframe of Minnesota police officer Kim Potter, who mistook her GLOCK for her TASER.
Seth’s family needed him at home, not in prison. As ace trainer John Hearne famously says, “It’s not about the odds, it’s about the stakes.” We need to remember what lawyers know: Acceptance of a plea bargain is not necessarily an admission of guilt.
The Werewolf Parallel
Let’s explore that “sympathetic victim” element. I’ve come to think of it as The Werewolf Parallel. The werewolf mythos in horror movies goes back to the 1931 film The Wolf Man. It stars Lon Chaney, Jr. as kindly Lawrence Talbot, who risks his life to save someone from a wolf; he kills it, but it bites him, and from then on, the full moon turns him into a tragic monster who can’t stop himself from killing the innocent. In the end, the werewolf is attacking a woman who is rescued by Talbot’s father, played by Claude Rains, who beats the creature to death with a silver-headed cane.
As the werewolf dies, it turns back into kindly Larry Talbot, and the movie closes with the horrified face of the father, who realizes he has just had to kill his own son.
In cases like this one, something similar happens. Rocky Russell was the good American, fighting for his country when he was “bitten” by the PTSD that changed him. Alcohol became the full moon that triggered Rocky’s transformation. Seth didn’t know about this until he and then his wife were attacked by the changed Rocky, whom he had to shoot as a last resort.
And after he fell dead, Rocky was seen to turn back into the hometown hero again. Moreover, the man he forced to kill him was overcome with grief at having had to perform that act.
In such incidents, there are no winners. All you can do is limit the degree of loss.
No lawsuit has been filed in the matter as of this writing. Seth and Jess are rebuilding their lives. The incident was a tragedy all around. The actions of Rocky Russell made his fatal shooting a last resort. If disparity of force and the deadly danger of being disarmed by a berserk assailant had been better understood within the prevailing system, I suspect Seth Casteel would probably never have been criminally charged at all. Noted Attorney Colley, “Tennessee has a very strong Victim’s Rights law.”