NEW: Man charged in Jupiter axe murder claims he acted in self-defense

Dec 18, 2017
David Harris

A 22-year-old Jupiter man who is accused of killing an Hispanic teen with an axe while he and his friends were out “Guat hunting” tried to persuade a Palm Beach County judge on Monday he acted in self-defense.

Assistant State Attorney Jill Richstone countered that when David Harris was initially interviewed by Jupiter police in connection with the 2015 slaying of 18-year-old Onesimo Marcelino Lopez-Ramos he never mentioned he was trying to protect himself or his younger brother, Jesse Harris, who is also charged in the murder.

Instead, in a recorded interview that was played for Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer, David Harris denied he was outside the home on 4th Street where Lopez-Ramos died from blunt force trauma. Harris told detectives a man he knew only as Austin bragged about killing Lopez-Ramos. Austin Taggart, 22, is also charged with the murder that prosecutors claim was a hate crime. The death inflamed Jupiter’s Hispanic community.

“I wasn’t there. I have an alibi,” Harris told detectives a week after Lopez-Ramos killing. “Just because my brother was there. Prove to me I was there.”

Further, Richstone argued, Harris should not be able to invoke the protection of the state’s Stand Your Ground law because he had plenty of opportunities to leave if he felt his life was in danger.

“He has admitted he was the aggressor. He admitted he was there to rob,” she told Schosberg Feuer. “There is no question whether this was self-defense.”

Under a revised version of the law that allows people to use deadly force if they feel their lives are threatened in a place they are legally allowed to be, prosecutors now have to prove that a defendant doesn’t qualify for the special protections. Before the Florida Legislature revised the measure in the spring, defense attorneys had to prove their clients’ actions were justified.

However, Schosberg Feuer said it is unclear whether the new provisions of the law are retroactive. She asked both Richstone and defense attorney Franklin Prince to explain their disparate views to help her decide whether the first-degree murder charge against Harris will be dropped before he goes to trial. The hearing is to continue Jan. 23.

Harris testified that he, his brother, Taggart and three of their friends were planning to go to a park to smoke marijuana when they encountered Lopez-Ramos, his older brother, Elmer, and others drinking in the yard of the home the family shared. The neighborhood is south of Indiantown Road between Military Trail and the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

He said Taggart had told him he wanted to go “Guat hunting,” a street term for robbing Hispanic men.

But, Harris insisted, he wasn’t interested. He just wanted to get high.

Initially, he said, he thought the men, who offered them rum and beers, “were pretty cool dudes.” But, he said, he got upset when Elmer Ramos put his hand on his shoulder and chest. “I don’t like being touched,” he testified. When he pushed Elmer Ramos, a brawl erupted and Ramos came at him with an axe, he said.

When Elmer Ramos ran off, Harris said he grabbed the axe. He feared the other men had guns, he said. Ultimately, he said he began sparring with Lopez-Ramos, who had a pipe. With one swing of the axe, he said he hit Lopez-Ramos in the back of the head.

“I didn’t know he was dead until the next day when I heard it on the news,” he testified. “It’s very sad.”

Neither his brother, Jesse, 21, nor Taggart, 22, are trying to escape murder charges by invoking Stand Your Ground. Unless Schosberg Feuer agrees Harris acted in self-defense, he is to be tried in April. His brother and Taggart will be tried separately.