illustration by Robert L. Prince

Self-Defense on Trial: The Joe Campbell Case

Editor's note: Hal Herring grew up hunting and shooting in rural north Alabama and now makes his home in Montana. He is a lifelong gun owner, a 2nd Amendment supporter, and a concealed carrier. This is his third story for Range 365.

In February of 2016, during a busy run of work, I was called for jury duty in our county seat of Helena, Montana, 72 miles from our home in Augusta. I was not particularly worried about the call, because, as a rule, no lawyer wants a reporter—us irritating know-it-alls with unlikely connections everywhere, and a highly-refined way of hiding our own personal opinions—on his or her jury. I almost always get cut from the jury pool early.

We’d just bought a GMC Sierra pickup with 217,000 miles on it and I was still working through the bugs on it—windshield wiper motor, idler arm sway, rear-brake noises. My plan was to drive the pickup to Helena, show up for jury selection, get turned down, hit the auto parts store and a grocery, and be back by supper.

However, during the first day of voir dire, it became clear to me that I would not get off so easily. Questions from lawyers on both sides were direct: Did anyone have a concealed carry permit? (I did). Were you able to absorb lots of conflicting information and render a judgement as to what was most likely to have occurred? (I was.) Had you ever been a member of the NRA? (Yes.) And so on, through a long morning and afternoon. As we were leaving, milling about in the great echoing halls of our state capitol (the trial, which, we were warned, would be long and controversial and be held in the old Supreme Court Chambers of the capitol building), another perspective juror said to me, “Boy, they both sure seem to want you on there.”

By the next morning, we in the jury pool knew (though we had not been officially told) that the trial for which we were being grilled was the deliberate homicide case brought by state prosecutors against 67-year-old Joseph Glenn (Joe) Campbell for the October, 2013 fatal shooting of Timothy Newman, south of our town of Augusta. Newman, 53, had been killed after a years-long dispute over access across Campbell’s property to the Lewis and Clark National Forest, where Newman liked to hunt elk and mule deer in the fall and ride his horses in the summer.

I breathed another sigh of relief. Augusta is a community of around 300 people— there are no real degrees of separation, and little chance that I would not know the witnesses in the case. Almost everybody in town had hotly debated the Campbell shooting, and most of us had formed opinions as to the right or the wrong of it, but, in the way of these things, not many of us had delved into the incident farther than knowing that Tim Newman had taken a fatal .40 caliber bullet in the upper back, after numerous run-ins with Joe Campbell over locked gates and blocked trails.

Most of us knew that Newman had been in possession of a pair of bolt cutters and a .357 Smith & Wesson revolver at the time of his death, and that the revolver was out of its holster, because we read that in the newspaper. I figured that I’d be cut from the jury pool, just by dint of living in Augusta.

But again, an oddity emerged for me. Although we are a small community, the killing took place far south of our town, in a subdivision called the Diamond Bar-X (small lots carved willy-nilly out of a former ranch, with a maze of roads leading to seasonal cabins or second homes). While I was familiar with that country, my family seldom went there. It was established through questioning that I did not personally know either Campbell or Newman, and had not closely followed the case.

A series of questions about my familiarity with public lands’ issues and access controversies followed. (I’ve reported on a lot of them.) I was asked if I understood Montana’s Stand Your Ground laws, and if I supported them (yes, to both questions).

The judge asked me once if being self-employed and facing a three weeks’ absence from my work, with subsequent loss of income, I wished to be excused from duty. All I could think about was my father, dead since 2010, a trial lawyer who hammered all five of his children with his ironclad belief that the American jury system was an almost holy institution, one that honored the wisdom of the common citizenry to produce, as closely as humanly possible and far more often than not, an outcome of justice for the accused. He said that it was an honor to serve, and that it was a duty never to be shirked.

I told the judge that I would not ask to be excused.

When I admitted with some embarrassment that my truck would not reliably carry me the 144-mile round trip from home to the courtroom, the judge said that I’d be put up in a local motel for the duration of the trial. Thirteen of my peers (two were alternates) were also on for the duration.

A Foreshadowing

During that first day of voir dire there had been a commotion outside our courtroom as another trial came to a dramatic end next door. James George Stiffler, 66, of Helena, had been charged with deliberate homicide by Lewis and Clark County for shooting and killing 37-year-old Henry Thomas Johnson, who had been allegedly burglarizing Stiffler’s home, on May 22, 2013. Johnson had been shot once in the back with Stiffler’s 9mm, and had exited the home by way of a window, reached his car and tried to drive away, expiring behind the wheel. Prosecutors claimed that Stiffler had lied about being threatened by Johnson, and that Johnson had actually dropped a sack containing jewelry and prescription drugs taken in the ransacking of Stiffler’s home, and was fleeing through a window when he was dealt the fatal bullet. The trial resulted in a hung jury. (Later, prosecutors would decide not to pursue the case again.)

On that afternoon, I noticed a tall, well-dressed and very fit man in his sixties leaving the capitol building. He looked familiar, but I did not place him until some weeks later, when I realized that it had been Massad Ayoob, the firearms instructor and author whose books, In the Gravest Extreme: The Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection and Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self Defense, are crucial reading for any armed citizen (and are on my desk as I write this). Ayoob was in Helena, Montana, to serve as an expert witness in the Stiffler trial, on the side of the defense.

We jurors were taking up our duties at a time when tensions and debates on self-defense shootings in Montana were running high. The Stiffler case had been the subject of much discussion in the media about the Castle Doctrine, which allows one to legally use force for self-defense in his or her home. The case had been very divisive for county residents, with many citizens saying it should never have been brought to trial, especially not at such expense to the taxpayers, and after such a long time between the shooting and the charges filed (665 days to be exact). Henry Johnson had been in Stiffler's home, with a sack of Stiffler's possessions, which was enough for many Montanans, to see killing him as justifiable, regardless of which room Stiffler said Johnson was in or what he was actually doing when he was shot. But at least some of the jurors on the Stiffler case had disagreed.

The Joe Campbell homicide case would clearly, at least from the prosecution's point of view, call into question Montana's Stand Your Ground laws, which allow a person to use force against a threat without retreating. The fact that Campbell had fired a second shot that struck Newman after he had almost certainly ceased to pose a threat (if he ever had posed a threat) complicated the case to the tune of days and weeks.

We on the jury had yet another self-defense incident fresh in our minds. Like almost every other Montanan, most of us had followed the Markus Kaarma case in Missoula just a year before. Kaarma had used a shotgun to kill 17-year-old German exchange student Diren Dede in Kaarma’s garage in the early morning hours of April 27th, 2014. Although Kaarma’s attorneys tried to use both the Castle Doctrine and the Stand Your Ground defenses, the evidence showed that Kaarma had made multiple threats against whoever had entered his garage some weeks before, had left the garage door half open, and left a purse in plain sight as a kind of bait. He engaged the high-schooler from outside his garage, firing four times into the darkness within, where Dede was trapped and attempting to take cover behind a car before being wounded and then killed. Kaarma was sentenced to 70 years in prison for the shooting.

We would serve on the Campbell jury for almost a month. I will not offer a blow-by-blow account of all that went on in that courtroom. Nor will I reveal what went on in that jury room, where 12 damn good citizens sweated and argued and did their almighty best to deliver the justice they had sworn to try and deliver.

What I can do is to offer my fellow armed citizens what I learned over the course of that month in that trial, in hopes that it might save them some trouble someday. I am still an avid and committed believer in being armed. But I will never think of “being armed” in quite the same way as I did before that February and early March. My own behavior, armed or unarmed, will never be the same.

Scroll down to read the conclusion of Self-Defense on Trial.

Self-Defense on Trial: The Joe Campbell Verdict

"Nobody would get what they wanted out of this homicide trial—not the jury, not the defendant Joe Campbell, not Tim Newman’s widow, neither prosecution nor defense."
"Nobody would get what they wanted out of this homicide trial—not the jury, not the defendant Joe Campbell, not Tim Newman’s widow, neither prosecution nor defense."illustration by Robert L. Prince

Nobody would get what they wanted out of this homicide trial—not the jury, not the defendant Joe Campbell, not Tim Newman’s widow, neither prosecution nor defense.

Neither the state nor the defense proved its case. What most likely occurred on that October morning did not support, beyond a reasonable doubt, either the deliberate homicide charge demanded by the state or the innocence demanded by the defense. We would end up hopelessly deadlocked, and Campbell would go free—only to plead guilty later to negligent homicide. We in the jury were not offered that option. For us, the only charge available was deliberate homicide or nothing.

What most likely occurred on that October morning did not support, beyond a reasonable doubt, the deliberate homicide charge demanded by the state, or the innocence demanded by the defense.

I am still an avid and committed believer in being armed. However, I will offer my fellow armed citizens what I learned over the course of that month in that trial, in hopes that it might save them some trouble someday.

First, do not, as Joe Campbell did, call up your County Attorneys’ office and tell them that your antagonist “is going to wind up in a body bag.” Do not call local law enforcement and tell them that you are going to “put him down.”

Think hard about this. Have you ever said, “Yeah, and I wish that sumbitch would come over here and try some of that monkey business with me”? How about: “Well, if they break in here, they’ll get the full Smith & Wesson treatment”? Ever buy one of those signs, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be prosecuted”? How about: “Nothing in Here is Worth Your Life”?

Now imagine yourself in the courtroom, on trial for a shooting. Do you want to explain why you claimed to your brother-in-law a couple years back that “I’d shoot that sucker soon as look at him,” after you have—justifiably or not—done just that? Do want to explain why you have a sign on your lawn declaring your willingness to shoot somebody? It’s not going to go well for you.

Firearms and self-defense expert and author Massad Ayoob was aware of the Campbell homicide case and the history between Campbell and Newman. “Trash talk, threats, all of that, that is also called Mens Rea, which is Latin for the ‘guilty mind,’” Ayoob told me. “It’s not complicated. What you have done, if something happens, is you’ve established intent.”

Second, if you are involved in a hot dispute over access across private land or anything else, do not do as Tim Newman did, and arm yourself believing that because your opponent is armed, you must be armed, too. You are setting yourself up for a gunfight at best, one that the law will almost certainly determine was avoidable. At worst, you are providing your opponent with exactly what they may be wanting: an excuse to kill you, and take his or her chances in court.

Let’s face this fact: an armed citizen gives up the privilege of engaging in neighborhood feuds, shouting matches at the boat launch, and shoving contests at the kids’ soccer games. Road rage is out. When our forebears said that “an armed society is a polite society,” they weren’t talking about people being afraid to be rude because of the threat that they would be killed. Far from it. They knew that armed men and women, if they want to remain free and armed, exercise extreme self-control and simply do not engage in conflicts that could force them to use their weapons and then be subject to judgement by the courts, thereby costing them all of their money and, perhaps, their freedom or their lives.

"Avoidance is Victory"

It has been forever and often said of Colonel Colt that his invention of the first mechanically sound revolver finally made men equal. It is not often said that his invention made them keep the peace through self-discipline, but it should be. As Ayoob puts it: “When I was a young man I can think of so many times I wanted to punch some loudmouth in the face, but it never happened. The first rule: avoidance is victory. Anti-gun people think that the trigger pulls the finger—that is, if you have a gun you’ll find a reason to use it, but I’ve found the opposite to be true.”

Joe Campbell, according to witnesses, did not often try to “keep the peace.” Instead, he confronted people crossing his property with a shotgun, and made threatening remarks to them, long before the day of the shooting of Tim Newman. It did not really matter, later, whether the easements for the old trails gave people the right to cross Campbell’s property, as many residents of the subdivision claimed. It did not matter whether Tim Newman was successfully establishing his own prescriptive easement to cross Campbell’s property through “adverse possession” of the trails, as he had been advised to do by a lawyer. In the end, a conflict over a locked gate that should have been settled over a cup of coffee or in a law office ended with Newman dead and Campbell, as part of his sentencing, being prohibited from ever venturing within ten miles of Newman’s cabin (now occupied by Newman’s widow), meaning he had to give up the property that he’d so doggedly (and with unnecessary force) defended. Campbell’s insurance also paid Newman’s widow $1 million.

Joe Campbell was constantly and openly armed and had been for years, according to witnesses. Tim Newman was armed (small-of-the-back holster) when he went to challenge that locked gate with a pair of bolt cutters and an aggressive attitude. Both men acted with immaturity and out of anger. Both men lost all they had sought to gain.

Being armed changes everything. It transforms us from an average citizen who might enjoy having a few beers after work and flipping the bird at the guy who cuts us off in traffic, to a kind of stone-cold sober American Samurai, always on the watch, well-versed in the OODA loop, well-trained with our weapon, and practicing "situational awareness" to make sure we aren't going to have to use that weapon unless there is dire and irrefutable need.

Ayoob told me that there was a contradiction involved in being armed in a modern society like ours. “You carry a gun so that you won’t be a victim. But you have to be the victim. A scenario: The perpetrator is lying in a pool of blood. You are standing there with your gun. You are now looking remarkably like a perpetrator. We don’t have a category for heroic armed citizens. We have victims and perpetrators. If you successfully defend yourself, you still have to make sure you that you are the victim.”

When we are armed, he notes, we don’t have the same choices that an unarmed citizen has. “People ask me if they should carry their guns in bad neighborhoods or wherever. Well, if you think you are going to need a gun there, you shouldn’t be going there anyway. You’ve got a dangerous bar, full of drunken a-holes. Ask yourself: why do I want to be there in the first place?”

Being on that jury, and following the Stiffler trial and others like it, has made me realize the responsibility of being armed in a way I never have before. The responsibility is huge, larger than I had imagined, and the penalties for being wrong are extremely high.

Finally, I want to say that my father was right. The American jury system—as ham-handed, blunt and imprecise as it can seem—is one of the best efforts at achieving justice in the long and patchwork history of human beings who seek to govern themselves and gain relief from what the 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called "the war of all against all." Left-leaning Americans constantly attack our natural rights to self-defense as defined by law in the Castle Doctrine, and the Stand your Ground Law, without ever acknowledging that those concepts are crucial to protecting human freedom and dignity and safety. The American jury system is the best vehicle for determining whether a defendant acted within the confines of those laws, and our case with Joe Campbell, to me, was a prime example. Our jury hung, because the charge of deliberate homicide—a very specific act of ruthless violence—did not irrefutably fit any of the scenarios we were presented. What happened was that one man took another's life in an exchange of angers and passions that could easily have been avoided.

After our jury was hopelessly hung, the state, eager to avoid another costly trial, came back with an offer of negligent homicide. That charge did indeed fit any number of the scenarios presented at the trial. In our failure to reach a judgment, we succeeded.