Denver lawyers debate shooting protest over relevance of victims’ right-wing affiliations

On the day of Lee Keltner’s death, he attended a right-wing rally in downtown Denver with a man who wore a tattoo associated with a far-right group and another who wore the crest of a outlaw motorcycle gang.

During the rally, Keltner’s son referred to a black man with a racial slur and threatened to “cut him,” according to court documents. He carried several knives. And Keltner, 49, carried a concealed weapon.

But whether a jury is to hear this information – and other details about the day – is a nuanced legal question that is currently being debated in the high-profile murder case.

Unlicensed security guard Matthew Dolloff, 31, was charged with second degree murder after shooting and killing Keltner as Keltner left the rally on October 10. Dolloff claims self-defense.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office argued in court records that certain information about Keltner’s political views and the character of the people he attended the rally with should not be allowed as evidence in the case because they are irrelevant and risk unduly influencing jurors.

Dolloff’s attorneys took the opposite position, saying Keltner’s affiliations, the larger context of the rally, and the actions of the attendees that day are relevant because they impacted Dolloff’s state of mind when ‘he fired the fatal blow.

Debates over what evidence can be presented to juries takes place in most murder trials, with judges making decisions to limit or allow evidence to eliminate superfluous or highly inflammatory information so jurors can focus on the heart. of the case, legal experts said.

“The idea is that when you manage the information that gets to the jury, you put it in a better position to find out the truth than if it were just a free-for-all,” said Aya Gruber, professor of law. at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Yet Dolloff’s case stands out both because of entrenched political issues and because it claims self-defense – a move that, in many ways, turns the scenario of a normal case upside down, experts said.

“At the end of the day, this is a man who was shot and killed and so legally – not politically – it was justifiable self-defense,” said Doug Cohen, a lawyer and former prosecutor who didn’t ‘is not involved in the case. “But jurors bring their political beliefs into the jury room, and both sides seem to be well aware of it.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

As their fatal encounter begins, Matthew Dolloff, center, working as a security guard for 9News, engages with Lee Keltner, left, in front of a 9News producer, right, in Denver on October 10, 2020. The Deadly Shooting occurred after participating in right-wing and left-wing rallies in downtown Denver.

Dueling rallies

If the case goes to trial, jurors will be asked to decide whether Dolloff committed second degree murder when he shot and killed Keltner.

The shooting took place on a day when two ideologically opposed groups gathered for what were billed as “dueling” political rallies at the Civic Center in Denver. On the one hand, the conservative participants of the “Patriot Rally”. They were greeted by left-wing protesters who had gathered for what was billed as a “BLM-Antifa soup order”.

Throughout the day, the two groups were separated from each other – a few hundred feet away – with police forming a buffer between them. The parties would yell at each other from time to time and chant.

It was when the rallies ended and participants began to leave the central police-controlled area that the Keltner encountered Dolloff.

In a confrontation captured on video and by a Denver Post photographer, Keltner and a handful of others were arguing with a counter-protester near the Denver Art Museum when Keltner suddenly focused on a 9News producer filming the argument with a mobile phone. Keltner told the producer to put the camera away and said he was going to “(swear) raise it”.

Dolloff, who worked as a security guard for Denver TV station 9News, stepped in between the two and physically blocked Keltner, who was holding a bear bomb. Keltner slapped Dolloff in the face. Dolloff drew a gun from his belt and shot Keltner as Keltner discharged the bear spray.

Under Colorado law, a person can only use lethal force in self-defense if that person reasonably believes that using less force will not be sufficient, and the person reasonably believes that he or someone is another faces an immediate threat of being killed or seriously injured.

There is no requirement to retreat under state law, but measures taken in self-defense should be generally proportionate to the attack, lawyers said.

Jurors in self-defense cases should take into account what the person claiming self-defense knew or believed when they used lethal force in deciding whether the person acted reasonably, said George Brauchler, former prosecutor of the 18th judicial district.

“It’s only relevant if he knew it,” Brauchler said of the disputed evidence in Dolloff’s case.

The remains of a flag burn ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The remains of a flag burn in front of law enforcement officers at a rally on October 10, 2020 in Denver. Two rallies, one on the right and one on the left, were held at the same time in the Civic Center park.

Political leanings

Prosecutors have asked District Court Judge Brian Whitney to exclude details of Keltner’s political views and the character of those he attended the rally with, in part because they don’t think Dolloff knew about it of this information when he pulled the trigger.

In court records, Dolloff’s defense attorneys alleged that Keltner was a regular in “far-right circles,” using the code name “Twisted” and posting online under the username “Twist Ted” about wanting to “put the boots on an antifa scum.” The defense also alleges that Keltner has been aggressive at previous rallies and attended the event in Denver with the intention of “causing trouble.”

At the rally with Keltner that day, there was a man wearing a “Sons of Silence” biker gang crest, according to the defense, as well as a man with a tattoo on the back of his head. year 1776 surrounded by stars, which the defense says is associated with the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia.

Prosecutors said Dolloff did not know this information when he pulled the trigger and that it would be unfair to allow this information to be presented to a jury.

“While the question of whether Mr. Keltner has a reputation for violence may be relevant, its probative value is largely outweighed by the risk that it confuses the issues and misleads the jury in considering Mr. Keltner’s character then. that he’s not the person on whom to trial, ”Assistant District Attorney Zach McCabe wrote in a July 2 motion. “… This trial is not about whether Mr. Keltner was the original aggressor or whether he has a reputation for violence.

Additionally, there is no evidence, McCabe wrote, that Dolloff overheard Keltner’s son use racial slurs and utter the threat, although Dolloff was standing nearby. And it’s not clear that Dolloff was aware of Keltner’s concealed gun, McCabe said.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office declined to comment while the case is ongoing.

The prosecutor’s request to exclude the evidence also raises the question of Dolloff’s political beliefs, saying that if such details about Keltner are admitted into evidence, it opens the door to exploring Dolloff’s inclinations, which they say are liberal.

“A simple Google search for Mr. Dolloff yields results indicating participation in protests which may be interpreted as contrary to Mr. Keltner’s affiliations,” read a footnote in the motion, linked to the media coverage of the case.

A man in custody ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Matthew Dolloff raises his hands above his head as he is arrested after shooting Lee Keltner in downtown Denver on October 10. Dolloff worked as a security guard for Denver’s 9News, but station officials said they were unaware he carried a gun.

Flip the script

The prosecution’s demand to exclude and limit evidence flips the scenario of a typical case, legal experts have said. It is more common to see prosecutors pushing for information to be cleared, while the defense is fighting to keep them out, Cohen said.

“Here they argue the opposite,” he said. “It’s like the Conservatives arguing for tax increases and the Liberals arguing for tax cuts.”

Still, the jury in the Dolloff case must determine whether Dolloff’s actions were reasonable, and part of that involves putting yourself in her shoes, said Dolloff’s attorney, Doug Richards.

“Imagine walking through a gang neighborhood and being approached by people who clearly show that they are affiliated with the gang, whether in words, in clothing, or in behavior – you are going to take that information and l ‘use when making a determination of what is reasonable in the circumstances,’ he said.

He added that because Dolloff was working as a security guard, he paid close attention to the entire environment and participants that day.

Dolloff is scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon for a hearing on the motions. The judge could hear arguments from both sides and then decide what evidence will be allowed in the case. He will likely draw a line somewhere between the positions of the two sides, said Stan Garnett, a former Boulder County district attorney.

“He’ll try to leave enough context for the jury to understand what it was like to be the accused in the situation,” he said, “but he won’t want the trial to become a referendum on Black Lives Matter. movement or other larger problem.

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