ELKTON — A man accused of firing five shots at close range into his uncle inside their Rising Sun-area home in November — killing him — is facing up to 30 years in prison after a jury convicted the defendant of manslaughter and a firearm offense.
The jury, however, acquitted the defendant, Kelly Patrick Biddle Jr., 22, of the most serious charges, first-degree and second-degree murder. First-degree murder carries a maximum life sentence while second-degree murder is punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
(First-degree murder applies when a defendant has committed a premeditated, willful, deliberate and unjustified murder. Second-degree murder applies when a defendant willfully and unjustifiably kills someone — without premeditation — or when his or her actions likely would result in death.)
Jurors deliberated approximately three hours Thursday at the conclusion of a four-day-long Cecil County Circuit Court trial, before finding Biddle guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence.
Voluntary manslaughter applies when there has been an intentional killing in which the defendant had a reasonable or unreasonable belief that his or her life was in danger and that the force used was greater than necessary. In general terms, voluntary manslaughter applies when there has been an imperfect self-defense, flawed by either an unreasonable belief of danger or by excessive force.
The jury also convicted Biddle of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony or a crime of violence. That offense is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and, by law, Biddle would have to serve at least the first five years — the mandatory portion of the penalty.
Sentencing is expected to occur in approximately 10 weeks, after a pre-sentencing investigation is completed. Cecil County Circuit Court Judge William W. Davis Jr., who presided over the trial, elected to keep Biddle jailed without bond until sentence after the jury returned the guilty verdicts.
Assistant State’s Attorney Michael J. Halter prosecuted Biddle, who was represented by Jason Ricke, an assistant public defender.
Biddle admitted that he shot his 45-year-old uncle, James Hammersley Biddle, dead in the living room of their shared residence in the 1600 block of Theodore Road shortly before 8 a.m. Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving.
So the murder trial for Biddle this week did not focus on if he was the person who fired five at-close-range shots from a .38 Special into his his uncle — striking him twice in the face and three times in the chest — but, rather, why he did it and whether he was justified.
“This is a self-defense case,” Ricke told jurors Thursday during his closing argument.
Ricke maintained that Biddle emptied the handgun’s clip into his uncle after his uncle had struck him in the head during a confrontation, their last in a purported long list of scuffles they had during the past decade. Biddle and his uncle had lived most of the past 10 years together at various places with the defendant’s father, Kelly Patrick Biddle Sr., whose brother is the victim.
The defense lawyer contended that Biddle opened fire because he feared his uncle. Based on his client’s account, Ricke described the uncle as a quick-tempered, unpredictable, imposing figure of a former amateur boxer who kept numerous loaded guns in close proximity to him inside the residence and who took an array of prescription medications for mental health issues.
“It happened very quick, very fast. In a single moment, there was a regrettable reaction,” Ricke told jurors, after emphasizing that Biddle “loved his uncle very much,” although they had a history of scuffles, as did the victim and his brother.
Halter, however, countered, “This is clearly a premeditated murder,” during his closing argument.
The prosecutor reviewed that Biddle had armed himself with the .38-caliber handgun before he had even seen his uncle that morning — after waking up in his bedroom to the sound of his uncle and his father arguing in the kitchen and then hearing his uncle make a derogatory comment about Biddle’s unemployment, dragging his name into the dispute.
By the time Biddle had reached the kitchen, with the handgun in his pants pocket, his uncle and his father had stopped arguing and were reconciling, Halter said. Biddle then confronted his uncle about the disparaging remark he had made about him while arguing with his father, he added.
“They were making up. (Biddle) fires the thing (dispute) back up. He said, ‘Are you going to apologize about what you said about me?,” Halter told the jurors.
After his uncle said no, Biddle walked into the living room and his uncle approached him from behind, prompting Biddle to turn around, Halter said. Biddle had testified that his uncle then hit him in the head, not hard enough to knock him down, but enough to make him step backward and Biddle, in response, pulled out the handgun and opened fire, Halter added.
“You have to meet force with (equal) force. What did he do? He shoots him five times with a .38 Special — twice in the face. What would any reasonable person think would happen?” Halter told the jurors, noting that Biddle did not require medical attention after the purported blow to his head.
Biddle testified in his own defense at trial.
After Halter asked him, “You thought it was a reasonable response to shoot him five times?” Biddle answered, “Yes. It was something I didn’t want to do’.”
Biddle’s father testified Tuesday that he called 911 immediately after witnessing the fatal shooting.
Halter played jurors a recording of that 911 call, in which a hysterical Biddle Sr. could be heard repeatedly uttering expressions of shock and describing the appearance of his brother who was prone, face up, on the living room floor. At one point, Biddle Sr. could be heard pleading with Biddle Jr. to help him tend to Biddle Jr.’s gravely wounded uncle.
Biddle Sr. described the shooting as “accidental” to the emergency dispatcher. Biddle Sr. also testified that he did not see his brother strike his son, before the gunshots rang out. In addition, Biddle testified that the shots were not fired until after he had intervened in the confrontation between his son and his brother.
“He pulled out a weapon. I jumped in when I saw the weapon. I grabbed it and the gun went off twice. It shocked me when it went off,” Biddle Sr. said, adding that three more shots fired.
Biddle Sr. had declined to provide any information to Cecil County Sheriff’s Office investigators, making his testimony Wednesday his first official account of the incident.
During a recorded interview with CCSO Dets. Tyler Price and Jonathan Wight, lead investigators, Biddle Jr. opined that his father was trying to protect him when he referred to the shooting as “accidental” and when he proffered that he injected himself into the confrontation.
“It’s the same thing you would have done for your son. He just watched his son kill his brother,” Biddle Jr. told the investigators, reasoning that his father didn’t want to lose his son, too, to a long prison sentence.
Several moments after the incident, Biddle admitted to a North East Volunteer Fire Co. paramedic at the scene that he fatally shot his uncle, something he also did with CCSO detectives later that day.
John McCann, a NEVFC paramedic who was the first to arrive at the shooting scene, recalled that Biddle walked out of the house and calmly told him that he had shot his uncle and that his uncle was dead. At that time, according to his testimony, McCann was still under the impression that he had responded to an accidental shooting.
“’I shot him in the face,’ he said, ‘It wasn’t an accident,’” McCann told jurors, before testifying that Biddle remarked to him, “I’m 21. I know my life is over. You know how families are.”
During his recorded police interview and his testimony, Biddle explained that, even though he loved his uncle, he was leery of him. Biddle estimated that he had armed himself with a gun on 50 occasions over the years because of the uneasiness his uncle caused him.
"He hates his life. He has a very, very bad temper . . . I love him, but I'm scared. You love a person who might hurt you. You never know what he's going to do," Biddle explained during his recorded police interview, before telling the detectives, "I'm not happy with what I did. I shot as many bullets as I had in it (the handgun)."
Halter told jurors that Biddle proffered only that he was "generally afraid" of his uncle and that he provided "no specifics, no incidents" to support his position, such as police reports showing that his uncle had assaulted him or hospital records showing that he suffered injuries at the hands of his uncle.
Ricke countered that Biddle could have been legitimately fearful of his uncle, without citing specific incidents.
Along those lines, Ricke recalled police testimony that investigators found five loaded guns in his uncle's bedroom, including one under his pillow and two shoguns on either side of his bed. His uncle's ever-present duffel bag was found on the kitchen table, where he had been seated during the start of the argument, and it contained a loaded .40 caliber handgun, Ricke noted. The defense lawyer also reminded jurors that an autopsy revealed a small amount of alcohol, morphine, anti-depressants and other drugs in the uncle's body.