The Anatomy of a Self-Defense Shooting, Pt. 3
Interview with Spencer Newcomer and Attorney Christopher Ferro, Esq.
by Marty Hayes, J.D.
A note to readers: In our January and February 2019 editions of this online journal, we told the story of Spencer Newcomer who after months of harassment by several neighbors was threatened with death by one during a confrontation. Although Newcomer was holding him at gunpoint, his neighbor reached into his pocket and began to pull out what Newcomer believed was a gun, so he fired four times, believing the man was about to kill him, as he had stated he would. Newcomer was charged with first- and third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
In the first two installments we detailed those events, the shooting and the trial. If you missed those installments, please return to this link to read what led to Newcomer’s arrest. Picking up where we left off in February, our interviewer, Network President Marty Hayes, asks defense attorney Chris Ferro about closing arguments.
Hayes: We’ve discussed the whole trial up to your summation and jury deliberations. What were you thinking when you did your summation?
Ferro: At that point, I felt like the case had gone about as well as it could go. I had confidence that we had accomplished what we wanted to accomplish in this case. The case summation was really just a matter of trying to tie all the puzzle pieces together to make sure the jury understood why each piece of the puzzle was important.
We laid out the inconsistencies from the eyewitnesses. We took some time to show how science can’t be wrong, but in many respects, people can. A bullet in the back doesn’t lie. But people, unfortunately, do get confused. I think that was a powerful way of doing things.
I highlighted the expert testimony. We spent a good deal of time explaining why our experts were correct and how everything we presented did nothing but support and corroborate the sequence of events that Spencer had told from day one. He essentially said, “This is what happened to me. I shot in self defense.” Everything we showed the jury supported that. Quite frankly, most of what the Commonwealth presented supported what Spencer had said.
I did another thing in this closing that I very rarely have done before or since. We had the opportunity to do something that was so unique and so powerful: this case just screamed out for it. The big question in this case asked, “What was Wintermyer reaching for at the moment Spencer had to make his split-second decision to shoot or not shoot?”
Obviously, hindsight tells us it was a cell phone. The Commonwealth argued that Spencer was never in danger. It was only a cell phone. They argued that nobody would mistake a cell phone for a gun and do what he did, so we had to show how compressed the time was in which he had to make that decision. I thought long and hard about it and I ended up using a movie screen in the courtroom, which we had utilized for our expert testimony and whenever we put up photographs. I had that movie screen up during my closing.
I talked to the jury about Spencer Newcomer having a second to make a decision; he had one second to make a decision. If he was wrong, he was a dead man. If he was right, he acted in self defense. I asked them to consider that second of his life and everything leading up to it.
I talked about the harassment, the bullying, the signs in the deceased’s yard, everything that person had done before that day to put Spencer in fear. I told them, “In that one second, you have got to decide if it was a phone or if it was a gun. What decision would you make?”
Then I said, “Now, you’re in a courtroom. No harm’s going to come to you, but I want to ask you what decision you would make under this circumstance?”
Earlier, I had my private investigator take a series of photographs in which he wore the same type of shorts that the decedent was wearing, and in the photographs, he had a black cell phone in an OtterBox case. The photographs showed him take a phone part way out of his pocket.
I had my paralegal put the photograph on the screen for a split second. We put it on the screen, counted to one, and we took the photograph right off. I asked the jury, “At this point in time, are you willing to bet your life that was a phone, or was that a gun, or do you not know?”
I’ve looked at it myself, and there’s no way you can ever tell in a second what that person is holding in their hand. You cannot tell whether it’s a gun or a cell phone. I saw that jury’s eyes light up. I saw them nod in agreement. At that moment, they got it. There was no way that they would bet 100 percent. They wouldn’t bet their life. They wouldn’t bet their children’s lives on whether that was a gun or cell phone. It really hammered home the point that this was a split-second decision.
In hindsight, Spencer was wrong. He thought it was a gun, but the case was not about being wrong. It was about being reasonable. You’ve got a second to make a reasonable decision. You’ve got to act quickly, because this is not a situation where you can stop and ask, “Let me examine the gun; let me look at it; let me figure out whether it’s loaded.”
Hayes: Wintermyer had told Spencer that he would kill him.
Ferro: If you second guess in a deadly force situation, you’re dead. Spencer reacted reasonably and the jury got that. It was one of the more powerful things I’ve ever done in a closing.
Hayes: Kind of a gutsy move, but it worked.
Ferro: It was, because it was contingent upon a number of things working correctly. It came off without a hitch. I could have talked about that point for an hour, but one second of just seeing it and having it sink in, that really paid dividends for us.
Hayes: So, the trial wrapped up on a Friday and then went to the jury. What were your thoughts, Spencer, while waiting for the jury?
Newcomer: It was very stressful. You’re sitting there and your life is in these people’s hands. There’s no other way to put it. I’m either going to get to hug my family again or I’m not. That’s what it comes down to.
Looking back, when your life is on the line, it’s hard to be confident. That’s just the way it is. When your life is on the line, you don’t take anything for granted. I was just waiting and hoping for the best.
I was somewhat confident that it was going to go our way. Nobody wants to gamble with their life, so it was definitely stressful. Until you hear those words, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, you don’t get to take a breath.
Hayes: Chris, how about you?
Ferro: I felt the same things. I mean, obviously, my level of stress was different from Spencer’s, but I will tell you, if you’re looking for a stress-free life, don’t be a trial lawyer, because waiting for verdicts literally takes days and weeks off the end of your life.
I felt the anxiety of thinking what could I have done differently, what should I have done differently? I had certainly developed a bond with Spencer over the nine or 10 months. I believed in his innocence. I enjoyed his family. I thought they were just tremendous people.
I felt a horrible burden to create this verdict. Waiting for a verdict is the longest four or five hours you’ll ever have. I can only imagine what Spencer was thinking about, locked in a cage, waiting for the same result. It’s difficult.
But like a lot of things, the level of pain and the anxiety that goes into waiting for that moment makes the victory even more sweet. The most magic words you can hear are not guilty.
Hayes: Spencer, so you heard the verdict, not guilty. You were able to hug your family and walk out the door, right?
Newcomer: No, I was not allowed to hug my family. I was not allowed to walk out the door. I was put back into handcuffs and leg irons and taken down to central booking. I sat there for a half hour to 45 minutes, then was driven back to York County Prison. I had to put my prison-issued orange jumpsuit back on and go down to my cell, clean out my cell and then come back and wait for them to process my release. Then I finally got to leave.
It took about two to two and a half hours, which was fast. I had supporters in the prison. Some of the staff told me that they knew I shouldn’t be there. They helped make the process go faster. But, no, it wasn’t like the movies. I couldn’t hug my family and walk down the steps and all of that.
Hayes: Chris, can you tell us why they would treat an innocent man this way? Is this an anomaly in Pennsylvania or what?
Ferro: I don’t know if it’s an anomaly in Pennsylvania, or whether it’s just York County. But obviously, once a prisoner, you remain a prisoner until discharged. Unfortunately, he had to be taken back and then released from the York County Prison for good. Is there a sense of injustice associated with that? Probably, but certainly, it’s the way in which they go about it procedurally here in York.
Hayes: That’s really quite amazing to me.
Ferro: It takes away some of the joy of the initial moment, but understand that he waited nine months, and realize that he’s maybe got another hour, that makes it a little more palatable at that point in time.
Hayes: OK. I wish we could say that this whole episode was over. But I know it’s not. Spencer, we’ve talked about the aftermath. Can you tell our members what you’ve gone through since?
Newcomer: Well, after the verdict, if you think you’re just going to walk out the door and then go back to your life, that’s not the way it happens. People looked at me differently; they acted differently towards me. Some people I knew before won’t talk to me now. Sometimes people come up and ask me improper things.
Sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t know and they don’t understand. Other people have stepped up and showed great support for me.
Physically, I’ve had some issues. Mentally, I’ve had some issues with having a lot of nightmares; with not being able to sleep and then wanting to sleep all day. I’d heard the story about Brian Wilson staying in his bedroom for three years. I never understood how it was possible. I understand it now. It took me a good nine months to even just want to go out of the house–not that I didn’t go out of the house for those nine months, but I had to work at it. I did not have the joy in activities that I had once had. [Editor’s note: Wilson, famous as the Beach Boys songwriter, suffered from agoraphobia.]
You have to become adjusted to these things as a new norm. You are “that guy.” I’ve had people come up and once they realized who I am they literally say, “Oh, you’re that guy.” I’m not known any more for raising tens of thousands of dollars for charity through Corvette clubs. I’m not known for being one of the first green builders in York County. No, I’m known for this and unless I come up with a cure for cancer, this is what I’m going to be known for.
There is help out there; this is not a bottomless pit. Help is available. Sometimes it takes time for medication and therapy to work, but fortunately, I have found what I needed in those and I am progressing. At the end of the day, every day I have is much better than the alternative. At least I can be with my family and enjoy my freedom.
Hayes: Thank you, Spencer, for really opening up your soul to share what happened and how you’re doing now.
Newcomer: Sure, anytime.
Hayes: And thank you, Chris, for talking to us about how you defended this case.
Ferro: Thank you.
[Editor’s Note: In February of 2019, Marty Hayes checked back in with Spencer Newcomer, knowing that members, who have expressed concern over what happened to him, would want to know how he was doing. He explains, “I returned to this interview several years after recording it when I felt confident that publishing these details could do no harm to Spencer. I spoke with him recently about the direction his life has taken in the past seven years, so let’s fast-forward to 2019 and inquire into how he is doing.”]
Hayes: When we taped the first interview some years ago, you talked about some physiological and psychological problems, including some depression that you had dealt with. Can you update us as to whether you are coming out of it? How are you doing?
Newcomer: The mental part has improved somewhat. I guess I am better equipped to deal with it now. For example, I know to avoid large crowds because crowds cause me anxiety. So, I know to avoid those now.
The nightmares and night terrors are not so frequent and they changed. At the beginning, a lot of the anxiety and the nightmares came from the actual shooting itself. Now, they’re more or less about the aftermath, being in prison, things like that cause me the greatest anxiety in the nightmares. It is not as bad as it was, but it is something that is always going to be there. It is something that I’ve had to learn to deal with and to cope with.
Hayes: I want to clarify one thing for readers: when you say “prison,” you’re referring to the York County Prison – what would be considered the county jail in the rest of the free world. Pennsylvania has this anomaly in that they call the county jail a prison, when in reality, you were never convicted and thus not in prison as some might mistakenly conclude.
Newcomer: Correct. It was the county jail; I don’t know why it says York County Prison on the front of it, but no, I was not in the state prison.
Hayes: How is your physical health?
Newcomer: I just had my seventh surgery, so that has been an ongoing chore. I have not been able to lose the weight I gained while I was in the jail, because I’ve been laid up from the surgeries. I can’t do the things I used to do for fun. I used to like to golf, but after all the back and neck surgeries, that is not possible. I used to like to go bowling; that’s not possible after rotator cuff surgery. I liked to go hiking in the mountains, but I can’t hike for any distance anymore.
There’s no use crying about it; I can’t do anything about it except do what the doctors tell me and try and make the best of the situation.
Hayes: You indicated to me in earlier conversations that you have moved to North Carolina. How did that come about? What happened to your house in York?
Newcomer: I lost everything. I lost my ability to pay my rent, I lost my vehicles, everything of value that I owned, I lost waiting for my hearing on disability. My only option was to move in down here with family. There were other considerations—having a fresh start, being in a place where people don’t know me is a definite plus. I wish that would have been more on my terms, rather than being forced to move, but fortunately, I have family that helped and continue to help me throughout this whole process.
Probably the biggest thing that your readers need to know is that you are going to need a support system throughout the mental, physical and financial survival. If I had been a single guy with no family around, no girlfriend or anyone else with me, I do not know how I could have survived–literally or figuratively. Your family and your friends are a tremendous asset. You are going to need help to get through something like this. There are no two ways around it.
To answer your question, I moved down here to North Carolina out of necessity.
Hayes: The good news is that you are spending some time with your mom and that is important. You mentioned disability. Without going into details, it is my understanding that during the physical arrest, you suffered a rotator cuff injury, spinal injury and a neck injury. Once you were released, those injuries prevented you from being able to work. You’ve had multiple surgeries, but there wasn’t an attorney that would take your civil case on contingency because there was no video evidence to prove that you were injured during your arrest.
Newcomer: I don’t like to talk about it because it sounds like sour grapes. The first surgery I had when I got out was on my neck. The neurosurgeon told me that usually he sits down with the patient and discusses options but he said, you don’t have any options. Either you have surgery or you’re going to be paralyzed. Your disks are bulging and calcifying into your spinal cord. I was already seeing symptoms of it. If I was holding a cup of coffee, my hand would suddenly just drop it; I was losing the dexterity in my fingers–I couldn’t pick up a pen off the table; I couldn’t get my arms above my shoulders. Six of my seven surgeries have been for ruptured disks.
Some of my disability was also from anxiety, so it was mental, too. At least initially, being around people and having the responsibility of a job would have been nigh on to impossible. The disability was a combination of physical and mental factors.
Hayes: So, you haven’t been able to work since the incident. How long has that been?
Newcomer: It will be seven years this June. That raises another issue. Whenever I am physically and mentally able to go back to work, I am going to have to explain to a prospective employer what this gap is on my work record. Just saying that I was on disability is not going to be enough.
Even if I had not had to go on disability afterwards, I would have to explain the nine months or so that I was detained awaiting trial to a prospective employer. That is going to be an awkward conversation. People are going to have to keep that in mind; hopefully they have an employer that sticks with them so they won’t have to deal with that.
Hayes: That really is compelling; it leaves me at a loss for comment.
I want to wrap up this final installment with a discussion about raising some money to pay off your legal expenses. Since you were not a Network member at the time of the shooting, you and your family have had to deal with all those expenses yourselves. I recently talked with Chris Ferro and he mentioned to me that there was about $8,000 owing. I have started a Go Fund Me page I will administer through the Network. If we can raise $8,000 we would like to be able to clear the bill up for you.
Newcomer: I would appreciate that! That is something that weighs on my mind. Obviously, Chris did a great job. I don’t like having outstanding debts. If I could have paid this off myself, I would have. I wasn’t a rich man before this, I wasn’t poor but I sold everything of value that I had. I sold my Corvette. I sold my gun collection. My dad’s firearms and the first deer rifle that my dad bought me was sold, along with pretty much anything of value that I had. It all had to go to pay for my defense.
People need to realize that if you don’t have $100,000 lying around, on top of everything else that is going on, adding that financial burden to your anxiety, well, let’s just say it is one more thing that you don’t need.
Hayes: Let’s see if some of our members will respond – some have already, so I’m optimistic. We would like to help clean this up for you.
Let’s wrap this story up for now. We wish you the very best. Let’s stay in touch.
Newcomer: I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Marty. Not long ago, I got a letter the Network forwarded to me with a check from a member who wanted to help with the legal bill. I hope to be able to get down to my bank in Wilmington, and then I will forward that to Chris. I appreciate that donation and everything else you’ve done for me.
It is my hope that by telling my story, I can help Network members avoid some of the pitfalls–or at least be better prepared to deal with them. If I can do that, it is a plus. Every bad situation presents an opportunity. I hope the bad situation I went through presents an opportunity for other folks to learn and get better idea of the big picture.
I think what the Network does with dealing with the aftermath is great. There is a lot of information out there about what do up to the time the gun goes off. There is not a lot about what happens after that. I think it is great that the Network shines a spotlight on what happens afterwards. It isn’t like in the movies where you go about your day and life returns to normal; it is far from that. I think it is good that from reading your articles people have a better idea about what’s involved.
Hayes: Well, thank you. It has been an interesting subject for us to delve into. The Network is now in its 11th year and just keeps growing. I am glad that you are now part of the Network. I thank you for telling us about your experiences.
Editor’s note: This concludes our series. For members interested in greater detail about the trial, the full transcript is available at this link (member log in required).
To read more of this month's journal, please click here.