BANGOR, Maine — Zachary Carr took the stand in his own defense Thursday on the fourth day of his murder trial and insisted he accidentally shot John “Bobby” Surles last year while defending himself in a street fight.
“It was an accident,” he said repeatedly.
“I didn’t intend to shoot him,” he added later. “I was trying to defend myself, but I didn’t have the intention of shooting him.”
Carr said the gun was tucked into the waistband of his pants, which began to fall down when he jumped back during the fighting. He said he grabbed it to secure it and it accidentally went off when Surles hit him with a mop handle.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson had a hard time believing Carr’s version of the story and asked him over and over how his unintentional shot just happened to hit Surles squarely in the chest.
“I don’t know,” Carr responded. “Everything was happening so fast.”
Carr is accused of shooting Surles, 19, on Jan. 27, 2010, and is being tried on charges of intentional or knowing murder and adequate provocation manslaughter. Surles died at Eastern Maine Medical Center 28 hours after the shooting.
On the night of the shooting, Carr said he was carrying, in the waistband of his pants, the 9mm handgun his father had given him a couple of hours earlier. Carr said he and his friends were in their apartment at 57 Cumberland St. when they ran outside to face a group of rivals.
Carr and others involved in the ensuing street fight who testified earlier this week said an egg-throwing incident earlier in the day led to a bat-throwing incident, then a planned fight between friends of Surles and friends of Carr in the parking lot of the Brookings-Smith funeral home on Center Street.
When Carr’s friends didn’t show up at the planned fight, Surles and his friends — armed with weapons including a machete, brass knuckles with a knife attached, a baseball bat and a mop handle — walked the short distance to Cumberland Street to confront them, witnesses said.
“They called and said they were coming to burn the house down,” Carr said, adding that when Surles’ group arrived, one had what appeared to be a gas can.
Carr and his friends testified that they ran outside because they thought Carol Sullivan, who rented the apartment, had gone downstairs to confront Surles and his friends.
“I didn’t have time to think” and just ran downstairs, Carr said.
Why did you bring the gun? defense attorney F. David Walker IV asked Carr.
“Because I had it in my waistband,” the 19-year-old responded.
The fighting was chaotic and involved around a dozen young men, he testified. At one point Carr came across a person beating his friend Jason Blake with a mop handle, which he thought was a pool stick.
“I saw Jason on the ground and someone on top of him,” Carr said.
After trying to push the man, Carr said he realized it was Surles and he kicked him, knocking him off Blake. He was then sprayed on the right side of his face with Mace.
During testimony earlier this week, Surles’ friend Michael Morin-Smith, who was 14 at the time of the shooting, said he sprayed Carr with Mace because he was pointing a gun at him. Morin-Smith said he then ran behind a nearby snowbank, fearing for his life.
Surles got back on his feet quickly after Carr kicked him and was swinging the mop handle at him, Carr testified. He missed with the first swing.
“I jumped back [and] my pants started to fall down and I thought the gun was going to fall and someone was going to get it, so I grabbed the gun,” Carr testified Thursday afternoon, his words breaking up at points because he was crying.
Carr needed a second to compose himself. He then said that Surles swung the mop handle again and hit him. “I put my left arm up and tried to block it. I got hit on the back of my hand.”
Walker then asked gently, “Did the gun go off?”
“Yes,” Carr responded.
“I heard Bobby say, ‘You shot me,’ and I ran,” he said next.
When Carr got to the end of the driveway of 57 Cumberland St., he said he slipped on the ice and turned back toward Surles.
“He was still running up the driveway after me,” he said.
Every seat in the Penobscot Judicial Center courtroom was filled with friends and relatives of Surles sitting on the right and of Carr sitting on the left. Many on both sides of the courtroom were wiping away tears during Carr’s testimony.
Benson was not one of them.
Benson wanted to know why, if the shooting was an accident, Carr didn’t call 911 to get help for Surles, why he hid the gun and why he initially lied to police.
“I panicked,” was Carr’s response. He added later, “I was scared and I didn’t want to get into trouble.”
After Carr’s testimony, the defense rested its case. Benson called a few rebuttal witnesses and then Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy announced that closing arguments would take place Friday morning, followed by the jury’s deliberations.
Earlier this week, two witnesses testified that Carr and Alex Moleon, who also lived at 57 Cumberland St., both had guns during the street fight that led to the shooting death of Surles.
On Thursday morning, with the jury out of the courtroom, Moleon invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions.
Moleon’s attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein, told the trial judge that if his client answered questions, he might face federal charges for being a minor in possession of a firearm. Moleon is 18, but he was 17 when the shooting took place.
After Moleon left the stand, Dakota Ashby was called and also attempted to plead the Fifth, saying that lies he told to police after the shooting could incriminate him, but Murphy found no grounds and denied his request.
“I am ordering you to answer questions,” she said.
With the jury back in the courtroom, Ashby testified that he was with Carr when he met his father and got the gun. Once back at the Cumberland Street apartment, where he lived with Carr, Moleon and others, he said he and Carr learned about escalating and heated confrontations and threats that were being exchanged between his friends and Surles and his friends.
Ashby said he was involved in the melee and was fighting near the spot where the gun went off.
“The street lit up,” he said. There was a “flash of light. When I turned around everybody was running.”
Carr said he had met Surles only twice before the night of the shooting and that one time the two teenagers talked about sneakers.
He said the memory of what happened a year ago has never left him.
“It keeps playing in my head, even today,” Carr said.