Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Jury convicts Whitefish shooter of deliberate homicide

Hagadone News Network | January 24, 2024 1:00 AM

A Flathead County District Court jury convicted Steven Justin Hedrick on Friday evening of deliberate homicide for the 2023 shooting death of Jeffery Brookshire in an extended-stay motel in Whitefish.

County Attorney Travis Ahner accused Hedrick, 33, of committing felony assault with a weapon when he confronted a drunk and belligerent Brookshire in a motel hallway with a gun in the early morning hours of Jan. 24. That the single action revolver went off in Brookshire’s face — killing him — precipitated the deliberate homicide charge. 

“If you pull a gun out, you face the consequences of what’s going to take place,” Ahner told the jury on Friday. 

Amanda Gordon, Hedrick’s defense attorney, had argued that Hedrick acted in self-defense when he grabbed his Ruger Super Blackhawk from his kitchen counter, cocked it and leveled it at Brookshire in the hallway. Testifying for the defense earlier in the trial, law enforcement trainer Howard Webb said that based on his review the gun likely went off accidentally after Brookshire grabbed it.  

Even if Hedrick fired intentionally, Gordon argued, he was justified. 

“There is no question Mr. Brookshire was the aggressor that night,” she said in her closing argument. “I cannot recall a witness that did not comment on his aggressive behaviors or body language. Not one witness classified [Hedrick] as the aggressor.” 

The jury returned with the verdict after more than six hours of deliberation. Judge Amy Eddy, who presided over the case, set sentencing for March 7.  

Standing and waiting for the jury to trickle in, Hedrick knocked several times on the defendant’s table. Walking toward detention center personnel a few minutes later, he glanced over at relatives in the courtroom.  

“Good seein’ you,” he said. 

The chain of events last January that culminated with the deadly shooting began with Brookshire returning to his former home, which he had shared with his ex-girlfriend, according to witness testimony. Settling on the floor, a drunk and allegedly belligerent Brookshire began kicking at her door. Neighbors, Hedrick included, intervened and, for a time, were successful in convincing Brookshire to depart for his room on the second floor.  

But he returned, this time leaning against his ex-girlfriend’s door and knocking. In his room across the hall, Hedrick grabbed his revolver and headed toward the door.  

WHETHER BROOKSHIRE’S behavior that night left Hedrick frightened proved a sticking point in the final hours of the trial. The last person to take the stand, Hedrick told Gordon — and Ahner under cross examination — that he was scared when he and Brookshire faced each other for the last time.  

He could hear Brookshire threatening his ex-girlfriend from outside of her apartment, Hedrick testified, likening it to a horror movie. When Hedrick opened his door, Brookshire turned that anger toward him, he recalled.  

Brookshire, he said, threatened to kill him.  

“I was just concerned with my protection,” Hedrick said of reaching for his gun. “There was no intent or any other purpose than to have my own protection because I was being threatened to be killed.” 

Ahner wondered why he failed to mention feeling afraid to investigators after Brookshire’s killing. He pointed to another fight Hedrick was involved in with a different tenant just days earlier. In recounting that struggle during an interview after the shooting, Hedrick omitted any fear he felt about that situation to detectives, Ahner noted.  

Hedrick admitted he might have let his bravado get the best of him in describing the previous fight, but countered that he felt his feelings self-explanatory when it came to the confrontation preceding the shooting.  

“I did not think there was any other way to feel when those things are happening,” he said.  

Was Hedrick afraid of Brookshire after the earlier interaction in the hallway, Ahner asked. Hedrick implied that it left him spooked. Despite that fear, Ahner noted, Hedrick left his room to go outside for a cigarette break unarmed.  

“I thought everything had ended,” Hedrick replied. 

Jumping to the moments just before the shooting, Ahner ran Hedrick through his prior assertions. He was on crutches at the time owing to a snowboarding injury and at a disadvantage in any conflict. He was not upset at the noise Brookshire was making outside. And he was “extremely afraid.” 

“And you went to confront the person you were afraid of for absolutely no reason,” Ahner concluded.  

CLOSING ARGUMENTS in the trial centered on whether it was a frightened Hedrick that took a gun with him to the door for protection or a frustrated Hedrick who planned to scare Brookshire into knocking it off. Both Gordon and Ahner drew on the surveillance footage of the shooting, shown to jurors several times over the four-day trial, to make their final arguments.  

Though describing Brookshire’s death as a tragedy, Gordon laid the blame for it at his feet. His behavior that night led to Hedrick feeling as though he needed protection.  

And he went for Hedrick’s gun, grabbing it with his hands, she said.  

“I would posit to you that you have more than enough evidence that this was an accidental or unintentional discharge,” she told jurors. “That [Hedrick] was never intending to pull the trigger and was never the one to cause it to be pulled.” 

Deadly force, Ahner countered, is permissible only when a person reasonably believes they face immediate death or serious bodily harm and it is the only recourse. If that standard were lower, he said, “If somebody says I'm going to slap you upside the head, that gun can come right up.” 

Hedrick’s neighbors had reasonable responses to Brookshire’s commotion, Ahner said. They shut their doors on him. A reasonable action would be to call 911, he argued.  

Go to any bar on a weekend and you likely will find a Jeffery Brookshire, Ahner told the jury.  

“There are people who are drunk, who are not good partners, who are even abusive to their spouses … You don’t get to kill those people. That’s not how we operate,” he said. “Did [Brookshire’s] actions that night warrant death? Did they warrant a gun in the face?” 

He told the jury that they would set the standard for what is reasonable in Flathead County. 

“You’ve seen guys talking tough: ‘What are you going to do? Are you going to do something about it? You going to find out?’” Ahner said. “That happens every Friday and Saturday night in the bars throughout this valley and this jury gets to decide, is it reasonable in that instance to bring out a gun and put it in some guy's face.”