Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal


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Sunday, December 12, 1993

CODE OF THE WEST IN CANTON GUN DUEL

ONE MAN IS DEAD AND THE OTHER GOES FREE UNDER OHIO'S LAW ON SELF-DEFENSE

By DAVID KNOX
Beacon Journal staff writer

Eric L. Weaver and Louis T. Frazier didn't know each other, but they had a lot in common.

Both were jobless young men living at home with their parents.

Both spent a lot of time on city streets with their friends -- Weaver in Youngstown, Frazier in Canton.

And, their parents say, both were afraid of guns.

That's why they carried them.

Because they did, Frazier is dead at age 23. And Weaver, 18, must live with the knowledge that a .38-caliber slug from his gun pierced Frazier's heart during a shootout on the streets of Canton on Oct. 20.

While Frazier's death was ruled a homicide, this is not a crime story. It's a gun story -- a case study of how laws have failed to control the lethal violence brought on by the availability of handguns. Not that authorities didn't try to hold someone responsible for the killing.

Weaver, who was wounded in the shootout, was arrested at the scene. There was ample evidence that he had killed Frazier.

At a preliminary hearing in Canton Municipal Court, a witness testified seeing Weaver, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, shoot at Frazier.

The slug removed from Frazier's heart was the same caliber as the handgun Weaver carried, according to the Stark County coroner.

But on Nov. 24, the murder charge was dropped and Weaver was released from jail after a grand jury refused to indict him.

What was missing, according to prosecutors, was evidence that Weaver intended to harm Frazier.

A strong case could be made that Weaver fired his gun in self-defense when confronted by Frazier and a 17-year-old companion.

Ohio law says no one may carry a deadly weapon or have one hidden close at hand -- unless a weapon is needed for defense. Certain business activities or a reasonable cause to fear an attack "would justify a prudent man in going armed," the law says.

While police initially speculated the shootout was drug-related, no drugs were found on Weaver, who had no felony record.

Neither did Frazier. Investigators say they aren't sure what sparked the shooting.

"This appeared to have started over allegations that Eric Weaver was responsible for a robbery of a relative of Frazier," said Canton police Detective Sgt. Jerry Wish. "There may have been a scene set to retaliate."

Wish said Frazier was in an apartment in the 3200 block of Kalahari Street Northeast, just blocks from his home on Harmont Avenue, at about 10:30 p.m. when the 17-year-old told him Weaver was coming down the street. "They went outside and the confrontation took place," Wish said.

The men were about 10 yards from each other when gunfire erupted. "There were discrepancies about who was shooting first," Wish said.

Passers-by ran for cover when as many as a dozen shots rang out from three guns.

"It's amazing more people didn't get hurt," Wish said.

A mortally wounded Frazier fell to the ground, got up and ran a short distance before collapsing on the sidewalk.

Weaver, a .22-caliber slug in his scalp, ran to a home on Avalon Avenue Northeast, where he was found on the front porch.

Paramedics were treating Frazier when his mother, alerted by a neighbor, arrived.

"I relive that every day of my life," said Constance Frazier, who is a nurse's aide at Aultman Hospital. "I don't think I'll every forget watching my son dying."

Louis was the oldest of her three children.

Constance Frazier said her son didn't know Weaver and she never heard the story about him robbing a relative of her son.

The mother said she didn't know her son had a gun.

"We understand a friend loaned him a gun shortly before (the shootout)," she said.

Since then, she said, the family has learned from her son's friends that ' apparently they all carry guns now."

She said her son was afraid of guns. That was one of the reasons he was discharged from the Army a year ago, after only six months, she said.

William Murray, Eric Weaver's stepfather, said he also had no inkling that his stepson was carrying a gun when he went to Canton that day to visit his girlfriend.

"It was totally out of character," Murray said. "He's not violent."

He denied that Weaver was involved with drugs. He said the rumor could have started simply because he was from Youngstown and there was a "rivalry thing' between the two cities.

Although he also didn't know where Weaver got a bulletproof vest, Murray said his stepson had good reason to fear for his life on the streets of Canton.

"Back in the summer of this year, he and two or three of his buddies were up in Canton and some guys shot up the car. He was wounded in his shoulder -- it was just a nick," Murray said. "I guess he felt he was protecting himself."

While Murray said his "heart goes out to the Frazier family," he blamed the tragedy on the escalating climate of violence in the inner cities.

"If life comes down to that -- the first law of nature is self-preservation -- in five years, everyone will be having to wear a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun," said Murray, a heavy-equipment operator whose wife, like Constance Frazier, works at a hospital.

Murray said his stepson won't say where he got the gun.

"However he obtained it, it would have to be out in his travels with his friends," he said. "Sometimes, we don't like the company he keeps, but he's 18 now."

Murray said he and his wife didn't want their son to talk to a reporter because of the possibility that other charges might be filed against him.

But that won't happen "unless new evidence develops to indicate there was some criminal liability," said John Anthony, chief of the criminal division of the county prosecutor's office.

Anthony said the grand jury that refused to indict Weaver could consider the shooting an act of self-defense under Ohio law.

"The issue was who was the aggressor," he said.

Self-defense also is considered an absolute defense to other potential charges, including felonious assault and carrying a concealed weapon.

Frazier's 17-year-old companion, who used a .380-caliber handgun in the shootout, was convicted of felonious assault as a juvenile and was sentenced Nov. 1 to a one-year minimum stay with the Ohio Department of Youth Services. But the sentence was suspended on condition that he complete a program in the residential center of the Multi-County Juvenile Attention Center.

"Basically, under state law, there really isn't a serious violation if it's self-defense," Anthony said. "I'm not happy with that."

Anthony argued that the laws should be changed. "A person shouldn't be carrying a gun into a situation where everybody is armed and there is going to be a problem," he said. "If there is a shootout at the OK Corral and you're carrying a gun, it should be a felony and you should be sent to prison."

But that approach won't work -- precisely because of the widespread availability of handguns, said Michael Hennenberg, a criminal defense attorney and one of the original members of the Task Force on Violent Crime in Cleveland.

Hennenberg said that violent crime has become so common in large cities that "any prudent person would go around with a gun."

The only solution is reducing the number of handguns on the streets, he said.

Hennenberg argued in favor of nationwide mandatory handgun licensing, as proposed by the Clinton administration last week.

"If you have to be tested and trained before you can own a gun -- in addition to the background check -- you cut down on the amount of people that go out and buy a gun," he said. "Even though I'm a gun owner, I totally support President Clinton and Attorney General (Janet) Reno's plan that it ought to be at least as hard to get a gun as a driver's license."

Canton Law Director Thomas Bernabei agrees that handgun control on the national level is warranted, and the killing of Louis Frazier is an example of why.

"It's a very telling story on the level of violence that exists in some neighborhoods in Canton," Bernabei said.

Bernabei said that there always will be "guys hanging out together, and a dispute arises," but adding guns to that situation makes for too deadly a mix. "They settle it in a shootout," he said. "Go back to the '50s or '60s, and it was switchblades and bats and fists. Handgun violence is a lot more lethal. "The same aggressions may exist -- fighting for girlfriends, territory, drugs -- but the weapons are different."

Constance Frazier said she will always be angry about her son's death -- but not because Weaver was not indicted for shooting.

"I don't know who I'm angry at," she said. "I'm angry all these young people have pistols in their hands."


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