At the end of a four-day trial last week, a jury found Walt Butler guilty of second-degree murder.
Butler faces life in prison and will be sentenced on Dec. 12.
On July 30, 2012 at Pine Ridge Apartments in Port St. Joe, Butler used a racial slur to describe a young black child that caused Butler’s friend, and Gant’s girlfriend, Pam Rogers to become upset.
Later that evening, when Rogers told her boyfriend about the situation, he said that he was going to talk to Butler and only minutes later Gant was shot between the eyes with a .22 rifle.
The arresting affidavit described an intoxicated Butler expressing disbelief in being arrested, using vile and racial language.
During pre-trial hearings, Butler’s Public Defender Mark Sims made a motion to use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law to have Butler’s case thrown out entirely, a motion that was later denied and the trial began on Monday, Nov. 18.
The 83 potential jurors were questioned by assistant State Attorney Robert Sombathy and Sims about their familiarity with the case, their history with firearms, whether or not they had ever experienced a traumatic event, how they reacted to it and even what self-defense meant to them.
“What we do is not always easy,” said Sims as he spoke to potential jurors for the first time. “The questions might seem nosy…they are.”
Because of the hate crime enhancement originally charged in the case, Sombathy and Sims asked if hearing racial slurs would offend anyone so highly that Butler couldn’t be forgiven and receive fair judgment.
Sombathy further explained to the potential jurors that it was the burden of the state to prove that the defendant was guilty and that Butler wasn’t required to take the stand.
After three lengthy interview sessions, the jury of six along with two alternates was chosen by midday Tuesday, and opening statements began shortly after lunch.
On Wednesday, Sombathy began calling witnesses and Rogers gave emotional testimony that Butler’s use of slurs toward the child upset her, and that Butler had clearly been drinking.
Pine Ridge property manager Pamela Silcox visited Butler earlier that day and testified that he and Lynn were drunk when she saw them and the .22 rifle was off its rack and propped against the couch.
Butler’s neighbor, Steve Dubree testified that there was no bad blood between Butler and Gant.
“I just think he made a mistake,” said Dubree, while locking eyes with the defendant.
Neighbor Kenneth Dunham’s testified seeing Gant, who he believed had good intentions, shot down.
Dunham said that he feared for his life and ran off to call 911 once he saw Butler reloading the rifle.
“I couldn’t understand why this is going on,” said Dunham as he recounted the event. “Everett wasn’t going over there to hurt anyone.”
The testimony of Butler housemate Robert Lynn conflicted with his earlier depositions, and the witness said he had drunk numerous beers prior to talking with the attorneys and before his time on the stand at the trial.
Lynn said Dunham wasn’t with Gant when he arrived.
“I wasn’t scared,” said Lynn, recalling the moment when Gant arrived at Butler’s sliding glass door. “He dropped like a sack of taters.”
Lynn said he didn’t know the victim and thought that Gant was the father of the boy that Butler had directed racially-insensitive comments towards that ultimately set off the chain reaction.
Sombathy played the two 911 calls made on the night of the shooting.
The first was from a panicked Dunham and the second from Butler which was delivered in a calm and casual demeanor. Butler told the operator that he’d shot a man who had forced his way into the apartment and was making threats.
Lynn got on the phone briefly to corroborate the story and then set down the receiver. In the background, Butler could be heard asking Lynn to get him another beer.
For several officers with Gulf County Sheriff’s Office and the Port St. Joe Police Department, it was the first shooting incident they had responded to, but they held firm on how the situation was handled. They indicated that cruiser lights were on, weapons were drawn and strong eye contact was when speaking with the suspects.
After they arrived, Lynn opened the door and stepped outside while Butler remained in the doorway. Police immediately ordered them to the ground.
Lynn quickly complied and was handcuffed while Butler went back inside and closed the door behind him, creating a tense situation.
“Walt looked right at me and went back in and shut the door,” said Deputy Richard Burkett.
As Burkett moved to the rear of the apartment, attempting to secure the scene, he discovered a bloody Gant sitting in a chair on the back porch. Burkett, unable to see the man’s injuries in the dark, told Gant to go home. Burkett said that Gant told him he couldn’t because Butler had shot him.
According to Burkett, Gant was responsive as he and EMS responder John Ford loaded him into the ambulance for Bay Medical Trauma Center. As the ambulance took off for a “safe zone” to administer an assessment, Deputy Larry Dickey observed Butler through the sliding glass door.
“I maintained eye sight in the residence. It appeared that he was eating and watching TV,” said Dickey.
By the time the ambulance reached WindMark Beach, Gant had lost consciousness due to blood loss and brain swelling and slipped into a coma from which he never awoke.
Meanwhile, former Sheriff Joe Nugent made contact with Butler by phone and arrested him inside the apartment.
Yolanda Soto, a crime lab analyst, examined the rifle. She testified the extractor was missing from the weapon, meaning that it had to be reloaded manually and confirmed that Butler only had one shot.
Sims asked Soto about the stopping power of a .22 caliber bullet, which she said would not be effective against big game. Sims indicated that Butler only meant to stop Gant, though Sombathy reminded the jury that the rifle was the only weapon in the house.
The following day, Medical Examiner Michael Hunter took the stand and said that Gant had died six weeks after the shooting from complications of the injuries inflicted by the .22 caliber bullet.
Sims called on crime scene investigator Jay Smith, Jr. to ask why he never dusted for fingerprints on the handle of the sliding glass door.
If Gant opened the door, as Butler and Lynn suggested, it would potentially be proof of self-defense, though Dunham said that Lynn opened the door before Butler fired the weapon.
Smith wasn’t instructed to dust for prints and Sims said that the oversight could have determined whether or not Gant had opened the door. The question remained unanswered.
While Butler and Lynn went on record saying that Gant had aggressively entered the apartment, Butler’s friends told the jury that the defendant always kept his back door locked.
“The victim was unarmed,” Sombathy told the jury. “Even without fingerprints, isn’t it clear who shot who?”
Sims said that Butler was scared of repercussions for his use of slurs and was simply defending himself in his home.
“There’s not a single drop of blood inside this apartment,” Sombathy argued, showing the jury photos taken at the crime scene. “This wasn’t self-defense, this was an ambush.
“You can’t ambush people and then sit back and say it was self-defense.”
Sombathy said that the case had all of the elements of manslaughter but turned up a notch because Butler had a depraved mind.
“I’m not saying he’s an awful person, I’m saying that he performed an awful act,” said Sombathy. “Something snapped inside this man’s mind that night.
“They weren’t scared at all, they were waiting. Self-defense or not, you just killed a man.”
Sombathy said that in self-defense, an attacker typically shows remorse for their actions, but Butler seemed unshaken. Sombathy reminded the jury that innocent people don’t run from the police.
Sims insisted Gant must have approached the house aggressively to trigger such a reaction from Butler.
“Why else could a man kill his friend?” asked Sims. “Walt had to make a choice that night. The choice was to take a man’s life.”
As Sombathy made his final arguments, he put a photo of Gant on the courtroom’s video screen for the jury, counsel and those in attendance to see. Sombathy called Gant a silent witness to the trial and said that when the door opened at Butler’s apartment he had to know he was in serious trouble.
“This man killed him,” said Sombathy, pointing toward Butler while keeping his eyes locked on the jury. “And this man is guilty as charged.”
Jurors were tasked with deciding whether Butler would be convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter. It only took an hour of deliberation for the jury to come to reach a verdict of second-degree murder.