Three young black men bursted in a white man's home in rural Northern California.
The homeowner admits to fatally shooting two of them - but it is the surviving black man who is facing murder charges in a trial that begins Thursday in a remote county north of the San Francisco Bay Area.
With an explosive mixture of race, death and a rarely used legal doctrine, the case of Renato Hughes Jr. has brought unprecedented attention to Lake County, where wine country aspirations overlay a long farming tradition.
The case has taken on racial overtones in part because of the sparsely populated county's racial makeup, which defies state trends by remaining 91 percent white and 2 percent black.
The prosecutor has argued race played no part in the charges stemming from the Dec. 7 shootings, in which homeowner Shannon Edmonds shot San Franciscans Rashad Williams and Christian Foster in the back.
Hughes Jr., also of San Francisco, escaped, only to face first-degree murder charges in connection with the deaths of his childhood friends.
Prosecutors say the men intended to steal marijuana when they invaded Edwards' home, while the defense maintains the shooting stemmed from a botched drug deal at the home of a known drug dealer.
Lake County's District Attorney Jon Hopkins is not charging the white homeowner but is instead invoking the Provocative Act doctrine, which allows him to charge Hughes with murder for taking actions that prosecutors say spurred Edmonds to kill.
"It was pandemonium in there," said Hopkins. "He (Hughes) had a responsibility for setting the whole thing in motion by his actions and the actions of his accomplices."
Edmond's stepson, then-high school junior Dale Lafferty, became brain damaged as a result of the baseball bat beating he took during the melee, and now lives in a rehabilitation center, prosecutor said.
Prosecutors said Edmonds was not charged because they could not prove before a jury that he did not act reasonably in defense of himself, his property and his family members, who were asleep during the 4 a.m. incident.
The case has energized the San Francisco civil rights community, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Charging the young man with murder with special circumstances, robbery, burglary, attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon defies common sense and smacks of the disparity young black men face within the legal system, the civil rights advocates say.
"The charges they're giving this young man do not fit the crime," said the Reverend Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, and pastor at Hughes' church.
Brown and other NAACP officials point instead to the homeowner, Edmonds, the man who acknowledged pulling the trigger, and ask why he is walking free. Tests showed Edmonds had marijuana and prescription medication in his system the night of the shooting. Edmonds had a prescription for the drugs to treat depression.
"This man had no business killing these boys," Brown said. "They were shot in the back. They had fled."
The Provocative Act doctrine is exceptional because it does not require prosecutors to prove the accused showed intent to kill, said Tony Serra, a criminal defense attorney who gained prominence in the 1960s defending Black Panthers.
"It's one of the harsher aberrations in murder law," Serra said.
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