Road rage dissected in court

Two motorists, a rude gesture, a shotgun: A Durham jury gets to settle the matter

Staff WriterSeptember 21, 2005 

His patience exhausted and his dander up after being cut off and tormented in traffic, Antonio McPhail swerved his car around the big SUV in front of him and shot the bird out of his open sunroof.

In his rearview mirror, McPhail saw the Ford Explorer speeding after him. He got scared, and reached into the back seat and grabbed his black pistol-grip shotgun just in case the driver wanted trouble.

What he didn't know was the guy in the sport utility vehicle that summer day in 2004 was an off-duty Durham police officer who was on the radio telling dispatch that the driver in front of him was brandishing a shotgun.

McPhail, a college student who aspires to write a novel and teach English, ended his day being charged with the misdemeanor offense called going armed to the terror of the people.

McPhail, 24, and Cpl. R.E. May told their versions of the July 31, 2004, incident to a jury Tuesday in a Durham courtroom.

May's side was that his 3-year-old daughter was in the car and when he turned his SUV onto Main Street from Duke Street, the guy behind him started wailing on the horn. Before they could reach the next block, the car swerved into the turning lane and sped around him.

May testified that he saw McPhail grab the shotgun and hold it up for a second or two so May could see it before making the finger gesture. May testified that as they continued down Main Street, McPhail slowed down and peered back at the Explorer while resting the shotgun in his lap, the barrel pointed out the driver's side window.

McPhail testified that May was on the phone or radio and nearly caused a wreck as he whipped the SUV into a left turn onto Main Street. McPhail tapped his horn, and the cop started riding his brakes, slowing to a crawl and causing McPhail to catch the red light. He grabbed the shotgun only when he thought the SUV's driver wanted trouble. This was Durham, after all, McPhail's attorney told the jury.

"In Durham, you got to wonder," lawyer John Fitzpatrick said. McPhail said he bought the gun for self-defense.

Assistant District Attorney Byron Beasley told the jury that bad things do happen in Durham, such as drivers grabbing loaded shotguns when they get angry in traffic. In the end, the lawyers told the jurors their task was to decide whether McPhail was trying to warn another driver "don't mess with me" or was legitimately frightened for his safety.

The jury of 12 deliberated for just under an hour before acquitting McPhail. He turned to the jury box and bowed his head slightly.

After the verdict, McPhail said he planned to work on that novel before looking for a job as a high school teacher.

Staff writer Benjamin Niolet can be reached at 956-2404 or bniolet@newsobserver.com.

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