Laing murder charge dismissed
by Kellen Moore
A Todd man accused of second-degree murder saw his charge dismissed Monday after a new review by prosecutors determined he acted in self-defense.
Thomas James Laing, 58, was charged with second-degree murder on March 29, 2012, after shooting 30-year-old Richard Matthew Bartlett in the head at Laing's home at 996 South Road.
In a 911 call, Laing told dispatchers he shot Bartlett once near the temple with a .22-caliber pistol, according to recording obtained by the Watauga Democrat. He said early in the call that his roommate was breaking into the house, unarmed but acting "very violent."
The case wasn't on the docket Monday -- in fact, it was scheduled for trial March 11, chief prosecutor Britt Springer said.
Springer said she began addressing all outstanding murder cases when she took over from former Assistant District Attorney Charlie Byrd about six months ago. As she began reviewing the evidence and reading the case file, she said she simply didn't reach the same conclusion as her predecessor.
"I had to come to the conclusion that I saw nothing that warranted second-degree murder," Springer said. "I have to see with a moral certainty that a crime has been committed. In this, I simply didn't have it."
Springer added, "I don't know what Mr. Byrd saw. ... It was pretty clear-cut to me, self-defense."
Springer said evidence showed that Bartlett physically hurt Laing less than two weeks before the shooting occurred, though the injury was not reported to law enforcement. She said Bartlett's friends backed up the claim, saying the 30-year-old had expressed remorse about hitting Laing.
On the day of the shooting, prosecutors believe Bartlett again got angry and that Laing shut himself in the house with both the inside door and storm door locked, Springer said.
"It looked as though that the deceased in this matter was actively breaking into the home to get to Mr. Laing," she said.
Springer said the community should understand that taking someone's life should always be the last resort, but also that the law protects those who feel they are in imminent danger of serious injury or death.
"If a person was put into that situation, should they have the right to do what (Laing) did?" Springer said. "After weeks and weeks of looking at it from every angle, I just simply can't say that he didn't have that right."
After making her decision, Springer said she visited Bartlett's family in Cramerton on Saturday and explained her rationale.
On Monday, Springer said she called Laing's attorney, Scott Casey, and asked that the defendant appear in court that afternoon, when she announced her decision before Judge Marvin Pope.
Casey said Laing is anxious to get back to his life after 11 months living under the weight of a murder charge. Laing was released from jail on a reduced bond in April 2012.
"My client is a lovely human being," Casey said. "He's never had a parking ticket, and he's almost 60. Everyone, everyone in the community just said, 'He's so sweet and peaceful. If this happened, there had to be a reason.'"
Casey said Laing and Bartlett had known each other for just less than two years. Laing had hired Bartlett for handyman work and became a mentor or father figure for him, eventually allowing him to move in because he had no home and was working to get his life on track, Casey said.
The relationship was positive for about a year and a half but had recently led to violence. The day of the shooting, Laing was "scared out of his mind," Casey said.
The incident occurred on a quiet road near the state line, and Bartlett was airlifted to Johnson City Medical Center in Tennessee. Sheriff Len Hagaman originally reported that the victim had died about two and a half hours after the 8 p.m. shooting. But an autopsy report obtained by the Watauga Democrat listed Bartlett's time of death as 9:50 a.m. March 30.
A toxicology report found no evidence of alcohol in Bartlett's body but did find an amount of alprazolam, a medicine commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders.
Casey said justice was properly served on Monday.
"This man never should have been charged," Casey said. "And anybody that looks at him with a side-eye as he's walking by has made a mistake. Because you are as safe as you are anywhere living in a community with James Laing."