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Lehigh County man loses appeal in gun-pointing incident

Published June 04. 2019 01:05PM

A Lehigh County man’s appeal of his conviction and sentence in a gun-pointing case was denied by a Carbon County judge.

Scott Timothy Watkins, 53, of New Tripoli, was convicted by a county jury of simple assault and not guilty of recklessly endangering another person in an incident in which state police charged he pointed a loaded gun at a security guard at a county campsite.

On Jan. 8 President Judge Roger N. Nanovic sentenced Watkins to serve six to 18 months in the county prison. In imposing the sentence, Nanovic invoked the deadly weapon provision in the law which moved the sentencing guidelines from a possible probation term to a prison term.

Watkins then appealed the conviction and sentence and has remained free on bail pending the resolution of the appeal. Watkins claims that the deadly weapon enhancement provision of state sentencing guidelines did not apply in the case and should not have been used by the court. He also argued the court’s instruction of self-defense and deadly or non-deadly use was in error.

In his 26 page opinion, Nanovic begins by noting, “Whether a defendant acted in self-defense can sometimes be difficult to determine, particularly when factual disputes exist over who was the aggressor, whether the defendant provoked the confrontation, and whether there existed a duty to retreat, and becomes even more complicated when the nature of the force used — whether deadly or non-deadly — is itself in dispute.”

Nanovic noted that Watkins claimed that he pointed the handgun at the victim’s head in self-defense to force the victim to back up because he thought the victim was going to harm him.

Case history

Watkins was charged by state police at Lehighton for an incident on May 14, 2016, at the Sunny Rest resort in Lower Towamensing Township.

Troopers accused him of pointing a .40-caliber handgun at security guard Christopher Wean, of Palmerton, at his trailer site in the clothing-optional resort.

Watkins denied the accusations, claiming self-defense in that he was afraid of Wean, claiming he knew that Wean had a conviction for simple assault and recklessly endangering in the past.

The trial was the second for Watkins on the charges. A previous trial was cut short when Nanovic learned that some of the jurors had been discussing the case before completion of all the testimony and the charge of the court. The judge declared a mistrial when at least four jurors admitted they had been discussing the case despite the court’s instructions at the beginning of the trial to not discuss the case until deliberations begin.

Trial testimony

During the trial, Wean testified that he and another guard, Jason Cerkan, drove Watkins’ wife, Lisa, to their trailer from a deck party a short distance away. They entered the trailer for a short period of time before exiting again.

While standing outside, Wean said Watkins arrived in his vehicle and slammed on the brakes, got out, and quickly went into the trailer. Wean said he heard yelling going on inside the trailer but could not make out what was being said. He said he was standing near a window and saw Watkins strike his wife three times in the face.

He said he told Cerkan what he saw. Cerkan knocked on the door and Watkins appeared. Cerkan testified that he observed Watkins reaching behind his back and thought he was reaching for a gun. Cerkan said he ran to a golf cart the two were using to get around the resort.

Wean stayed near the door and said the next thing he knew, Watkins was holding the barrel of the gun against his left cheek. After a few moments he said Watkins dropped the gun to his side. Wean said he went to the golf cart, turned it around and headed for the office area.

Watkins told a different story as to what happened. He said when he entered the trailer he found his wife in an intoxicated condition, which she was not when she left the party for the trailer.

He also said he thought she might have been drugged, claiming as he walked by Wean before entering the trailer he smelled marijuana.

Watkins said after seeing his wife, he opened the trailer door and yelled out to Wean and Cerkan to leave. He said he repeated the order several times. He said he saw Wean walking toward him at the trailer door and that was when he pulled out his gun. He said he again told Wean to leave. He said Wean took two more steps toward him and then turned around and left.

Watkins said the gun’s safety was on at the time. He said after he felt that both men had left, he called police to report the incident.

He said he never struck his wife that night and never put the gun against Wean’s cheek.

Testimony from other commonwealth witnesses, including investigating state trooper Michael Sofranko, and another trooper, both stating they believed Watkins was intoxicated.

Wean and Cerkan also said Watkins and his wife were both intoxicated.

Watkins told the jury he had only one mixed drink all evening.

After the verdict was read, Nanovic found Watkins guilty of a summary count of harassment.

Opinion

In reviewing the use of self-defense, Nanovic wrote, “Self-defense, also known as justification, recognizes the common sense principle that a person can protect himself against the unlawful use of force by another provided the level of force used by him is not disproportionate to the level of force used against him.”

Concerning the use of deadly force, Nanovic stated, “To justify the use of deadly force, the evidence must establish three elements: (a) that the defendant reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm and that it was necessary to use deadly force against the victim to prevent such harm; (b) that the defendant was free from fault in provoking the difficulty which culminated in the (use of such force); and (c) that the defendant did not violate any duty to retreat.”

Nanovic, after further reviewing the applicable law concerning self-defense, deadly force and jury instructions on them, concluded, “In accordance with the foregoing, it was appropriate and necessary to charge the jury on the elements of self-defense applicable to the use of both deadly and non-deadly force. Defendant was properly sentenced in accordance with the deadly weapon used enhancement, and the jury’s verdict was not against the weight of the evidence.”

Watkins has a right to appeal Nanovic’s decision to the state Superior Court.

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