A jury voted Friday to convict the former Detroit firefighter who fired a 12-gauge shotgun at a high school freshman looking for directions to his high school. Jeffrey Zeigler, now 53, offered multiple excuses to justify his violent encounter with Brennan Walker, now 15, on April 12 but was ultimately undone by his own home surveillance cameras, and his own lies.
He was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, but Judge Wendy Potts gave jurors the option of convicting Zeigler on the lesser charge.
The story of Zeigler’s attack on Brennan is a terrifying one. The racial undertones of a white man shooting at a black boy are undeniable, though neither the prosecution nor the defense brought up race as a motivation for the incident.
Extremely soft-spoken on the stand, Brennan, [..] testif(ied) about how Zeigler and his wife reacted after he appeared on their front porch shortly after 8 a.m. that day, seeking directions to school. Without a cell phone due to his mother taking it from him the night before because he wasn’t doing his homework, Brennan said he was walking to school — relying on his memory of the bus route when he became confused.Brennan said “a nice man” in the same neighborhood had given him directions awhile earlier, but he still lost his way. He then decided to try another house, which turned out to be the Zeiglers’.
A neighbor, James McFee, said the teenager had knocked on his door a few minutes earlier, and he talked with him on the front porch and provided him with directions, which “required a series of turns to get out of the subdivision.” He described the teenager as “a bit nervous but polite.”
Brennan’s version of events, which aligns with the Zeigler’s own security footage, is simply heartbreaking.
Brennan said he had opened the screen door and knocked a few times on the home’s front door, then stepped back so whoever answered could see him through the window next to the door. Zeigler’s wife came to the door and mistakenly believed he was trying to break in, and then began yelling, Brennan testified.
Zeigler came downstairs, looking “like he had just woken up,” then moments later appeared with a shotgun.
“I was scared. I was trying to tell them that I was trying to get to high school, but they weren’t listening,” Brennan testified. He said he considered trying to continue explaining, but then decided leaving was a better idea.
Brennan said he began to run, then turned around “to see if he was going to shoot me. I saw him aiming at me, so I looked back and tried to run faster…because I didn’t want to get hit.”
Law enforcement responding to the Zeigler’s 911 call found Brennan just a short distance from the house.
Deputy Travis Dick testified he responded to the “attempted home invasion” and found the teenager, who matched the description of the suspect, walking in the subdivision.
“He appeared shook up and had a tear running down his cheek,” Dick said.
Dana Zeigler, whose dramatic screams summoned her gun-toting husband, told a very different tale.
Relying heavily on “big scary black man” tropes, Dana Zeigler appears to blame Brennan for not looking childlike enough.
“I saw a black person standing at my door and I screamed at him and I asked him what he was doing there,” she said. “He tells me that he is going to school and at that point he approaches the door, forward momentum, comes forward, opens the screen door, and puts his hand on the door handle again, as though he’s coming into my house.”
Panicked, Dana screams and says she woke up her husband Jeffrey from a deep sleep. She thought the person on her porch was trying to break in.
“He didn’t look like a child. He was a rather big man standing there, and also, if he was going to school, we have no schools in our area,” she said.
“I was screaming as loud as I possibly could, saying somebody is breaking into my house.”
Jeffrey Zeigler’s version is even worse.
Zeigler, who spent more than 24 years with the Detroit fire department, testified things were “chaotic” that morning around 8:15 a.m. when he awoke from a sound sleep to his wife’s screams that someone was trying to break into their home at the front door. He ran down the stairs after seeing a man at the door and grabbed a loaded shotgun he kept behind his office door.
Surveillance footage from the couple’s own cameras plainly shows a shirtless Zeigler aim the gun, flip the safety, and fire. See for yourself.
That poor kid. Ugh.
In early statements to police, Zeigler gave a different version: that he had slipped on the porch and the shotgun accidentally discharged. When confronted with his own video, Zeigler took a drink of water and told Oakland County Detective Shawn Pace, “I was tired of being a victim,” Pace testified this week.
A transcript of Pace’s interview with Zeigler indicates that the nearly 25-year veteran firefighter referred to Brennan as “that colored kid.”
The “victim” bit, on the other hand, references multiple break-ins the couple endured in 2009, at the hands of a teenaged neighbor who was later arrested—someone described as “known to the family.”
At trial, Zeigler maintained that he simply fired a “warning shot.”
He claims the gunfire was meant to be a warning shot but his foot slipped on the pavement.
“I wanted to fire more up in the air, more towards my shoulder, and I didn’t get the chance to because like I said, it was slippery, and I didn’t have a good grip on the gun,” he said.
Zeigler’s attorney went even deeper with the lie and resorted to listing the things Zeigler didn’t do as a defense for the things he did.
During his closing statement, Morad, told jurors his client was firing into the air, not to harm anyone, and trying to protect his wife. He noted the shotgun had other rounds in it and Zeigler only fired once and never chased after Walker.
“If he wanted to kill him, he could have shot him on the porch,” Morad said.
Zeigler did, at least, express something resembling regret for his crime.
Zeigler claims he had no idea the person on his porch was a teenage boy until he saw the surveillance video.
“I felt extremely remorseful. I was — I was just shocked,” he said.
When asked if he would’ve done things differently:
“I would have given him a ride to school,” Zeigler (replied).
Sure you would have, Jeffster.
Michigan law does allow citizens to protect themselves against home intruders, but shooting at a fleeing suspect (or lost high school student) is a crime. Zeigler faces a mandatory two years for his firearm conviction and could get as many as ten additional years for the assault conviction.
Brennan’s family burst into tears as the verdict was read; Zeigler’s attorney has not ruled out an appeal, which would force the young man and his family to endure further court proceedings.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.