The Justice Files: Defendant’s claims of self-defense shooting tests new law

Justice Files

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – A new law will test a self-defense claim made by a man who shot seven times at a hit-and-run driver.

It was November 2019 when Michael Clara was driving on a street in Salt Lake City’s west side.

His passenger, Michael Harman was with him. Clara’s own dash camera was recording when both felt a push from behind. It was an older pick-up truck that was ramming them from behind.

The pickup truck stopped and Clara claimed it was preparing to turn and come back towards them. He took out his gun and started firing.

He shot seven times. Clara, who is a concealed weapon permit holder said he shot in self-defense.

“It seemed that that guy was trying to kill us, ramming us and it looked like he was going to turn around and come after us again,” Clara said.

The vehicle equipped with a snowplow took off without stopping. No one in Clara’s vehicle was hurt. Harman called 911. Salt Lake City police soon arrived and learned more of the shooting.

The pickup truck was later found but the driver was not. Police later said it was a stolen vehicle.
They also found a vehicle with a shattered windshield. It belonged to someone who was in the vicinity of the shooting. The driver wasn’t hurt.

Days later, the Salt Lake District Attorney filed seven felony counts against Clara for unlawfully discharging his weapon. One count for each shot fired.

“There are times, under certain circumstances, it is lawful to use deadly force,” chief deputy DA Jeff Hall told ABC4. “These allegations are that these circumstances didn’t exist at the time.”

After a preliminary hearing, a judge found there was enough evidence for Clara to stand trial.

But he appeared before a judge Monday in a virtual hearing. His attorney was using a new law called “justification hearing” in hopes of getting the case dismissed.

“It prevents cases that shouldn’t go to trial that should be dismissed early on,” said Clayton Simms, Clara’s attorney. “Now, the prosecutor has to demonstrate self-defense didn’t occur, that he wasn’t defending himself and defending others.”

A prosecutor in Monday’s hearing claimed Clara was in no danger. He said the driver never approached Clara’s vehicle after the initial collisions.

Clara’s own passenger also testified for the state. Harman claimed that all he saw were the brake lights of the pickup. But he couldn’t recall if they were before or after the shootings.

For Clara, he welcomed a justification hearing. He said it was a chance to clear his name and not drag the case even further.

“My thing was to equalize what was happening,” he said.

The judge took the case under advisement and will rule at a later date.

The 2021 legislature passed House Bill 227. Normally, a preliminary hearing is held to see if there’s enough evidence for a defendant to stand trial.

But under HB227, there’s another hurdle before the case goes to trial. A defendant call requests a “justification hearing” for cases involving deadly force. In this new wrinkle, prosecutors need to prove that the accused did not act in self-defense.

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