Federal Officials Close Review of Fatal Shooting of Hector Escoto-Munguia
Roanoke, VIRGINIA – The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia announced today that there is insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal charges against Keith Sidwell in the April 10, 2018 fatal shooting of Hector Escoto-Munguia on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Officials from the United States Attorney’s Office met with members of Escoto-Munguia’s family today to inform them of this decision.
In conducting its review, the United States Attorney’s Office was tasked with determining whether the events that led to the death of Mr. Escoto-Munguia gave rise to a federal criminal violation prosecutable under the applicable statutes, 18 U.S.C. § 1111 (Unlawful Killing of Another Person), or 18 U.S.C. § 1112 (Voluntary Manslaughter). To establish a violation of Section 1111, the government must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that (1) the defendant unlawfully killed a person; (2) the defendant killed with malice aforethought; and (3) the killing was premeditated.; or that (1) the defendant unlawfully killed a person; (2) the defendant killed with malice aforethought; and (3) the killing took place within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. To establish a violation of Section 1112, the government must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that (1) the defendant unlawfully killed a person; and (2) the defendant did so without malice, that is, upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Based on the specific circumstances of this encounter, the United States Attorney’s Office also had to analyze these potential federal charges in conjunction with the self-defense doctrine, which, in certain cases, acts as a bar to criminal liability for an otherwise intentional killing.
Here, experienced federal prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office considered whether Keith Sidwell (Sidwell) violated Sections 1111 or 1112 by killing Mr. Escoto-Munguia. After a thorough review of the evidence gathered by the FBI, the Roanoke County Police Department and the National Park Service, the United States Attorney’s Office has determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Sidwell violated either statute.
The United States Attorney’s Office conducted an independent review of the evidence. This included multiple 911 calls, witness interviews, crime-scene analysis, physical evidence and digital media. This evidence indicated that on April 10, 2018, Mr. Sidwell and Mr. Escoto-Munguia, who was driving a Hummer H3, encountered each other while they were both driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The two ended up stopped next to each other, facing in opposite directions, with their driver’s windows down. Mr. Sidwell stated that Mr. Escoto-Munguia pointed what appeared to be a semi-automatic handgun at him and Mr. Sidwell, a former police officer who possessed a valid concealed weapons permit, drew his own handgun, a Glock 9mm, and yelled multiple times for Mr. Escoto-Munguia to drop the gun. Mr. Sidwell asserted that he discharged his firearm when Mr. Escoto-Munguia continued to point the firearm at him and Mr. Sidwell feared for his life. Investigators determined that Mr. Sidwell discharged his firearm three times and they also recovered a Daisy Powerline Model 340 BB pistol from the roadway just outside and to the rear of Mr. Escoto-Munguia’s vehicle. The BB-gun is made to look like an actual handgun and bears markings strikingly similar to a Beretta 92F 9mm pistol. At approximately 10:27 a.m., Mr. Sidwell called 911 stating he had shot a man on the Blue Ridge Parkway after the man had pointed a gun at him. Mr. Sidwell can be heard shouting “get down” or “sit down” in the background of this call. The investigation also disclosed that immediately before the shooting, Mr. Escoto-Munguia had at least three other encounters with witnesses not far from the location of the shooting. These witnesses reported that a man driving a vehicle similar to that of Mr. Escoto-Munguia brandished what appeared to be a black handgun at them. They each identified Mr. Escoto-Munguia from either his photograph or his vehicle. Specifically, one of the witnesses also reported a license plate number on the vehicle being driven by the man brandishing the firearm, which transposed one letter of the license plate number on Mr. Escoto-Munguia’s Hummer (VZY-4100 versus VYZ-4100, respectively).
Here, the United States Attorney’s Office cannot disprove Mr. Sidwell’s assertion that he needed to use deadly force because he feared for his life when Mr. Escoto-Munguia pointed what appeared to be a handgun at him and failed to comply with his orders to drop it. As noted above, a person who has killed another human being may rely upon the doctrine of self-defense to justify his actions and remove himself from criminal liability. The person who is not the aggressor may use a reasonable amount of force against the aggressor when the defender reasonably believes he or she is in immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm, and the use of force is necessary to prevent that harm. United States v. Bellinger, 652 F. App’x 143, 148 (4th Cir. 2016) (unpublished). Deadly force may be used in self-defense if it is an “in-kind response,” i.e. a person “reasonably believes that he is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.” United States v. Barrett, 797 F.3d 1207, 1218 (10th Cir. 2015); United States v. Black, 692 F.2d 314, 318 (4th Cir. 1982). Finally, a valid claim of self-defense requires that the aggressor “(1) was under unlawful and present threat of death or serious bodily injury; (2) did not recklessly place himself in a situation where he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct; (3) had no reasonable legal alternative; and (4) established a direct causal relationship between the criminal action and the avoidance of the threatened harm.” United States v. Smith, 600 F. App’x 884, 886 (4th Cir. 2015).
In this case, there is insufficient evidence to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Sidwell unlawfully killed Mr. Escoto-Munguia and that he did not act in self defense. The totality of the available evidence indicates that just prior to his encounter with Mr. Sidwell, Mr. Escoto-Munguia had encounters with others on or near the Blue Ridge Parkway during which he displayed what appeared to be a handgun. There is no reliable testimonial or physical evidence that refutes Mr. Sidwell’s account that he believed he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm when Mr. Escoto-Munguia pointed what appeared to be a handgun at him. Accordingly, the evidence is not sufficient to meet the rigorous requirements of proving beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1111 or 1112. This decision is limited strictly to an application of the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under federal criminal laws. It does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the incident that led to Mr. Escoto-Munguia’s death.
The United States Attorney’s Office consulted with the Roanoke County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office throughout the investigation and review of this matter and that office concurred with the decision of the United States Attorney’s Office.
This decision is based on an extensive review and a careful analysis of the applicable law, as well as our adherence to well-established ethical standards governing prosecutors in cases where, as here, the evidence falls short of our constitutional burden of proof. The United States Attorney’s Office is committed to investigating all allegations of violations of federal law and will devote all necessary resources to ensure that a thorough and careful review is given to any matter within our jurisdiction.