By his own admission, Melvin Stephens did not have to pull out a gun and fire upon a man who was chasing him up a flight of steps at a North Austin apartment complex.
Stephens told police investigating the November 2016 shooting that it was the worst mistake of his life and “I didn’t have to.”
But in a Travis County courtroom this week, Stephens testified that, upon reflection, he now believes his life was in immediate danger. His lawyer, Robb Shepherd, told the jury he was “begging” them to acquit Stephens of a murder charge in the slaying of 22-year-old Dedrick Earl.
“Dedrick Earl is dead because of the decisions that Dedrick Earl made that day,” Shepherd said.
The jury had been deliberating for two hours as of press time without reaching a verdict.
The dispute between the two men on Nov. 16, 2016 began when Stephens confronted Earl and his friend in the apartment complex parking lot about dumping ashes from a burned magazine on his blue Ford Taurus.
Stephens, a 49-year-old former security guard, returned to his upstairs apartment unit and called police, telling the dispatcher he had a gun with him. A little time passed before he again confronted the men as they were cleaning up the mess. The man who was with Earl, Juanya Touchstone, testified that Stephens threatened to “blow your head smooth off” or “blow your brains out.”
Earl grabbed a ketchup bottle filled with water and threw it at Stephens. Both men walked off; Stephens to his place and Earl to Touchstone’s apartment downstairs. But before Stephens could make it to the door, he was approached by Earl, who had come out of Touchstone’s apartment and was sprinting up the steps. Stephens grabbed his .357-caliber revolver and fired, hitting Earl in the neck.
The men were so close at the time of the shooting that the victim’s blood ended up on Stephens’ hand.
With the lawyers on both sides agreeing that Stephens was the shooter, the trial has focused on whether the shooting was justified. The defense argued that Stephens’ life was threatened, pointing to bloody scissors found on the steps that Shepherd said Earl had gotten from Touchstone’s apartment just before the fatal confrontation.
Touchstone told detectives that “it looked like he was going to use it to attack the dude.”
“That is Dedrick Earl’s own friend saying that,” Shepherd told the jury. He added, “thank goodness Melvin Stephens had a deadly weapon.”
But Stephens, who said he had been awake for 24 hours at the time of the incident, never mentioned anything about scissors in his 90-minute interview with police. He said he assumed Earl had a weapon when he sprinted up the steps, but that he did not know what it was.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Lindsay Richards said the defendant “made a lot of assumptions — a lot of wrong assumptions.” Another prosecutor, Bill Bishop, played video of the police interview in which Stephens said he did not have to shoot the victim.
“This is a straight up killing and there’s no justification for it,” Bishop told the jury. He called the alleged threat imposed by Earl “a fantasy attack.”
Stephens faces five to 99 years in prison, if convicted of murder. He has no prior criminal history.