Fatal shooting outside Original Hot Dog Shop may have started over insult
By Margaret Harding and Bobby Kerlik
Published: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, 12:09 p.m.
A Lincoln-Lemington man “was getting beat up” when he fired his gun in self-defense during an argument in Oakland early Saturday that ended with a former college football player dead, his lawyer said.
Surveillance video of the incident on Forbes Avenue shows a man police identified as Isiah Smith, 22, shoot at another man's back, a criminal complaint says. The bullet struck Zachary Sheridan, 24, of Brookline in the upper back as he was running away, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.
Pittsburgh police charged Smith with homicide, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment in the death of Sheridan, a former Seton-La Salle High School and Slippery Rock University football standout.
“All of Isiah's actions were in self-defense,” said Smith's attorney, Blaine Jones. “Isiah was getting beat up, and he defended himself.”
Sheridan's family declined to comment.
Smith, surrounded by relatives, walked into police headquarters in the North Side with Jones about 3 p.m. Monday. His older brother kissed his forehead as detectives handcuffed him.
The Pennsylvania stand-your-ground law, which Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law in 2011, expanded the right to use deadly force without retreat outside a person's home to his or her car, yard or any other location where he or she is legally allowed to be as long as the person believes shooting is necessary to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse. The law states that the person doing the shooting has to be in legal possession of the gun and that a weapon must clearly be displayed for someone to believe his or her life is in imminent danger.
The complaint says witnesses and Smith said the incident began when the girlfriend of Smith's uncle complained to him at the Original Hot Dog Shop about 2:45 a.m. that three men said something to her that offended her.
It says Smith, the girlfriend and others went outside and a confrontation began with Sheridan and two other men. The groups exchanged angry words, Sheridan threw one or two punches, and a shot was fired, the complaint says.
Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and director of the criminology and law program at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, said self-defense boils down to similar points — did the person reasonably believe that he was in danger of death or serious bodily harm when he fired?
“Assuming you were not the initial aggressor, the question is always, ‘Was the defendant in a situation where he reasonably believed he needed to use deadly force?' If you have a reasonable belief that you need to protect yourself from death or serious bodily injury, then you're authorized to use deadly force,” Antkowiak said.
Prosecutors must disprove self-defense claims in court. Successful self-defense claims can result in acquittal or conviction on a lesser charge.
“The (prosecution) has to prove that's not the case. They could say, ‘That guy didn't think he was in danger; he went after the guy and shot him,' ” Antkowiak said.
An unarmed victim being shot in the back would likely help boost an argument for prosecutors, Antkowiak said.
Video surveillance from the scene in front of the Dunkin' Donuts on Forbes Avenue shows a man, whom police identified as Smith, raise his gun and fire toward Sheridan's back as Sheridan runs across Forbes, according to the complaint. The video shows Sheridan stumble and run out of camera view while the shooter conceals the gun and walks away, the complaint said.
Police released images of the incident on Saturday, and Smith saw a photo of himself on the news, the complaint said. His mother and brother urged him to turn himself in, and he went to the Highland Park station about 8:45 p.m. Saturday to give his account of what happened.
During an interview with detectives, Smith told police he was with friends eating at the Original Hot Dog Shop when his uncle's girlfriend told him three white men were bothering her on Forbes. Smith, who is black, said he and his friends walked to the men and began arguing. According to a criminal complaint, Smith said, “I'm hood. I'm from the hood,” several times, showed Sheridan and his friends a 9mm handgun and said, “We don't want to take it this far.” Police said Smith was permitted to carry the gun.
Smith told detectives he pushed a man in a white shirt, then a man he identified as Sheridan hit him and knocked him to the ground. Smith told police he pulled his gun out and “let one off,” the complaint said. He first said he fired at Sheridan and later said he fired into the air.
An unidentified witness told police he was with Sheridan and another friend when they ate at the hot dog shop and jokingly asked a woman who pulled up to the curb in front of them if she could give them a ride home. The woman became angry and said the men were disrespecting her, and the witness told police that Sheridan apologized.
The woman later approached them with a group of people, the witness said. Sheridan twice stepped between a man with a gun and one of his friends, and hit Smith, the witness said.
Police released Smith hours after he surrendered on Saturday because they said the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office did not approve charges. Prosecutors and police met Monday morning and prosecutors approved charges, officials said.
“He's upset,” Jones said. “He was the one getting beaten up.” Jones said Smith suffered a concussion and received eight stitches.
Police said they are investigating whether any of Smith's friends will face charges.
Lunch business at the “O” appeared sparse on Monday. A man who identified himself as the owner declined to answer questions and asked a reporter to leave.
Until December, a city officer was stationed inside the “O” during late night hours as a side detail, but police and store owners disagreed over the number of officers who should be working there at the same time.
“The presence of one cop (in the O) alone usually deters anything,” said D.J. Hitchman, 22, of Oakland, who was walking past the eatery. “You become aware of what you're doing because you don't want to get arrested.”
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