Even in self-defense, can you afford to pull the trigger?

Aug 13, 2012, 9:59 AM | Updated: Aug 14, 2012, 12:09 pm
Attorney Pete Mazzone shows the jury a photo of Bryce Fortier taken after the incident in which Christopher Chandler was shot and killed in 2007. Fortier was acquitted of second-degree murder. (The Herald/Dan Bates)
(The Herald/Dan Bates)

As he sat in a holding cell, Bryce Fortier overheard a police officer say he would be charged with murder.

“That can’t be right,” he thought. “It was self-defense.”

But on Halloween 2007, media reports confirmed what he could not believe. Prosecutors in Snohomish County had charged him with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 18-year-old Christopher Chandler.

Nearly five years later, with criminal and civil proceedings behind him, Fortier and his father say they are on the verge of bankruptcy. They spent more than $250,000 trying to prove what Bryce Fortier had said all along: He pulled the trigger to save his life.

“Even if you’re right or justified, it’s horrendously expensive,” said his father, Andrew Fortier, 49, of Seattle. “The whole process was astronomically frustrating, god I can’t even explain it. But then, at the end of the day, I knew that if I had to spend it I was going to spend it.”

‘They were killing me dad’

Bryce Fortier was 21 years old when he decided to buy a firearm. He purchased a Taurus PT145 and got a Concealed Pistol License.

“I carried fairly often, just because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Fortier, however, hadn’t planned to bring his firearm to a Halloween house party in Mill Creek on October 27, 2007. He stopped at the get-together with an acquaintance and chose to bring the weapon inside rather than leave it unattended in his friend’s vehicle, he said.

“It was a perfect storm,” his father said of the circumstances that would result in his son’s arrest later that night.

According to Fortier, there was a fight outside the party and he was asked by the homeowner to tell those involved that police were on their way. He claims he was blindsided as he approached the group of partygoers.

“One of them hit me in the back of the head with a bottle and I went down,” he said. “Then they just kind of circled around me … and they basically just stomped me.”

Fortier said he was able to escape the first round of assault, but ended up on the ground again.

“Each time I was getting hit it was just flashing white,” he recalled. “I just remember thinking, ‘They’re not going to stop.'”

It was in that moment that Fortier said he had to make a decision: “It was either see if they stop, or try and get out of this.”

Fearing for his life, Fortier chose the latter.

“I put my pistol in the chest of the person who was on top of me and pulled the trigger.”

That person was Christopher Chandler, a student at Lake Washington Technical College. He also worked as a server in the dining room at Madison House Retirement Community in Kirkland.

Chandler died on the sidewalk from a single gunshot wound.

As police were en route, Fortier called his father.

“He was very shaky and he said, ‘Dad, dad, I just shot somebody. I can’t believe it … I didn’t know what else to do. I was dying,'” Andrew Fortier recalled. “‘They were killing me dad.'”

Self-defense or murder?

Witnesses, prosecutors and the media would paint a very different picture of the night Christopher Chandler was killed.

Based on witness testimony that described Fortier as the aggressor, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Sherry King alleged that Fortier was not being assaulted at the time he shot Chandler. She argued that Fortier was angry about having been beat up earlier in the night.

Pulling information from court documents, several media outlets at the time reported that Chandler was shot trying to break up a fight.

While Fortier would be charged with second-degree murder, his defense attorney, Peter Mazzone, believed it was a clear case of self-defense.

“When I first got the call to go and see him … he was all bruised up and his face was swollen and he had black eyes and he was a mess,” Mazzone said.

No one could deny that Bryce Fortier had been beaten that night. A booking photo displayed at trial shows his right eye swollen shut, his upper lip bloodied and his face covered in abrasions.

“I don’t think there’s any question in anybody’s mind, after being presented with all the facts, that he was certainly in great danger of losing his life.”

But Mazzone would have to prove that at trial.

A ‘horrendously expensive’ ordeal

Andrew Fortier paid $25,000 to retain Peter Mazzone as his son’s defense attorney, but was warned the cost could surpass $80,000.

After hiring forensic experts, a private investigator, a crime reconstructionist and paying other court costs, Bryce Fortier’s defense bill was well into six-figures.

“$147,729.36,” Andrew Fortier recalls. “I don’t really think I spared a dime.”

A jury acquitted Bryce Fortier of murder and manslaughter. However, when asked to rule whether the shooting was justified, a procedural step that determines if a defendant should be reimbursed court costs, the jury did not agree that Fortier acted in self-defense.

Mazzone could not explain the latter ruling, but suggested it could have been a symbolic gesture to the victim’s family.

Following the criminal trial, Bryce Fortier and the owner of the home where the shooting occurred were served with a civil suit brought on by the estate of Christopher Chandler.

Fortier said he was sued for negligence and battery.

“I was just trying to figure out what they wanted,” he said. “At that point I had more debt than stuff.”

While Bryce would eventually be cleared of wrongdoing in the civil proceedings as well, it came at a cost of roughly $110,000.

Having relied on his father to pay for his criminal defense, Fortier worked to pay for the civil side himself.

Now, five years and $257,729.36 later, he is still paying for the split-second decision he made at that Halloween party.

He still owes $75,000 in attorney fees.

He tried to join the military, but said he could not come up with the roughly $6,000 needed to provide them with court documents that fully explain his second-degree murder charge.

Fortier said he never expected it would be so hard, or so costly, to prove that he acted to save his own life.

Mazzone said the cost of a good defense doesn’t enter someone’s mind when they pull the trigger to protect themselves.

“I don’t think anything goes through their mind expect defending themselves and wanting to live,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that if you do that and if you defend yourself, your actions will be scrutinized very, very carefully and in most cases you’ll end up charged with a crime.”

Had he not had his gun on him that night, Bryce Fortier believes he could be dead. Which is why, despite the aftermath, he still carries his pistol.

If he ever finds himself in the same situation, he says he would pull the trigger again – even if he can’t afford to.

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Even in self-defense, can you afford to pull the trigger?