A 74-year-old Columbus man didn’t pull the trigger, but Franklin County Attorney Gary Tyack’s office charged him with causing a fatal shooting in 2021 by starting the confrontation.
It was unlike any case that former Franklin County District Attorney Ron O’Brien had ever tried in his 24 years, or that Columbus-area criminal defense attorney Samuel Shamansky had ever seen in his 37 years in the county.
“That was a ridiculous stretch,” Shamansky told The Dispatch.
Ultimately, a Franklin County jury didn’t buy the prosecution’s argument and on Friday acquitted Robert Thomas of involuntary manslaughter for his role in a confrontation that ended in murder in a residential neighborhood on the Far East Side on Father’s Day 2021.
At the same time, the jury found Thomas guilty of aggravated assault, which carries a maximum of 180 days in prison in connection with his actions that day.
Franklin County prosecutors argued that when Thomas confronted 43-year-old Jason Keys on the street with an assault rifle, Thomas Keys and his family feared for their lives. This sparked a loud argument that led to a neighbor across the street lashing out by fatally shooting Keys with a rifle from his porch, prosecutors said.
The shooter, 25-year-old Elias Smith, faces murder charges. His trial is scheduled for December 5 in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Although Smith fatally shot Keys, prosecutors charged Thomas with playing a significant role in Keys’ death.
“Robert Thomas initiates a series of events culminating in Elias Smith shooting the victim,” Franklin County Assistant Attorney Simon Huh said during the opening statement.
Shamansky, one of Thomas’s defense attorneys, argued during the trial that there was no evidence Thomas pointed his gun at anyone or attempted to load it, as witnesses claimed. And even if Thomas had made aggravating threats, Shamansky said Thomas could not have predicted Smith’s actions.
“We are very fortunate. This man is getting his life back,” Shamansky told The Dispatch after the verdict. “Mr. Thomas was no more legally responsible for the terrible, tragic death of Mr. Keys than I was. We hope that justice will ultimately be served when Mr Smith is brought to justice. Of course we mourn the loss of Mr. Keys.”
“While the Franklin County Attorney’s Office is disappointed with the not-guilty verdict on the involuntary manslaughter charge, we thank the jury for their consideration on this matter,” said Franklin County Assistant Attorney David Zeyen, who heard the case along with the Deputy Prosecutor Sung Huh pursued a prepared release.
“We believe this tragic case demonstrates the need for all citizens who choose firearm ownership to be fully and fully educated about the responsibilities of firearm ownership and use,” Zeyen said.
Involuntary homicide: a novel charge and an uphill battle for prosecutors to prove it
Aside from the bizarre scenario, the involuntary manslaughter charge was also out there, Shamansky said.
Under Ohio law, a person who commits a misdemeanor or felony resulting in death may be convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Thus, a serious threats conviction was necessary to convict Thomas of involuntary manslaughter.
Shamansky and O’Brien said the law has traditionally been used to try people in personal injury cases — for example, the defendant hits the victim, who falls and hits the head and dies — or in child endangerment cases, where the child dies .
These are examples where death was a predictable outcome.
Prosecutors had an uphill battle to prove Thomas caused Keys’ death because, according to O’Brien, the jury had to find that Smith’s actions were predictable.
“Who could really have predicted that?” asked Shamansky. “They just don’t think that’s going to happen in some idyllic suburban neighborhood, that some random guy comes out with a gun, doesn’t ask a single question and just shoots a person.”
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The Chaotic Incident: Thomas confronts Keys with a gun
On the afternoon of June 20, 2021, Keys and his wife, Charae Williams Keys, visited their family for Father’s Day brunch at their grandparents’ home on Walnut Hill Park Drive on the Far East Side. It’s the street Williams Keys grew up on. Thomas lives a few houses down the same street. The Thomases and the Williams have known each other for decades. Keys has been visiting this street for years.
As Keys and his wife left and got into their car that afternoon, Thomas confronted Keys with an unloaded assault rifle but with an ammo clip in his hands.
Thomas later told a police officer that he confronted Keys because he believed Keys had repeatedly deflated his car tires and spilled grass on his lawn in recent years, according to a recording of the interview played in court.
“I just went to scare him,” Thomas said on the recording. “I was trying to scare him, not not really scaring him, but letting him know I had the gun … The point was to stay away from my property because I have a gun.”
Thomas was trying to load a magazine into the assault rifle when Keys took the magazine from him. A loud argument broke out, with family members running outside screaming. Williams Keys’ grandfather, Cordell Williams, took the rifle from Thomas, who, according to Thomas and witness testimony in court, fell to the ground.
Smith, who lived across the street from the Williams, apparently heard the commotion, but it’s unclear how much he heard or saw. Smith walked right outside his door and shot Keys multiple times from across the street, according to the prosecution and defense. Keys died of his wounds.
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Why did Smith shoot Keys?
Why Smith fired is unclear. He appeared briefly in court Wednesday in the Thomas case, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
Williams Keys’ mother, Charisse Penn, testified that she told Smith on the day of the shooting, “You shot the wrong person.”
Cordell Williams asked Smith why he did it, and Smith replied, “I don’t know,” Penn testified. Cordell Williams has died since the incident.
Video, which played during the trial and was captured by the body camera of the Columbus police officer who arrested Smith, recorded Smith saying, “I thought someone was going to get killed, so I fired.”
Assistant prosecutor Zeyen said Smith later told police he recognized his neighbors but didn’t know them by name and was trying to protect his elderly neighbor Thomas from Key, a man he didn’t know from the neighborhood.
Smith told police he shot Keys for holding the ammo clip, Zeyen said.