Tyrone Swan and his girlfriend had gotten locked out of his Polish Hill apartment late one night in August 2008 and decided to go to the Comfort Inn on Banksville Road to spend the night.
As they got out of their car -- arms around each other and laughing -- a group of four people approached and asked "What the [expletive] are you laughing at?"
That exchange started a chain of events that left one man dead, another injured, and another facing prison for voluntary manslaughter.
"This whole event is caused by a bunch of drunks," said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony M. Mariani today as he rendered his verdict in Swan's nonjury homicide trial. "The victims instigated the matter because they were drunk."
According to testimony by witnesses for both the prosecution and defense, Swan, who was 19 at the time, attempted to calm the situation in the hotel parking lot, but instead was sucker punched.
His girlfriend, Shatera Jernigan, who was 17, reached into her purse and began spraying Mace at the attackers, and the couple tried to flee.
Instead of letting them run away, the group of four -- two men in their 30s and two women, -- chased them.
Two of them ripped Ms. Jernigan out of Swan's arms.
"I see some dude drag her, kicking her," he testified Wednesday. "I was scared, panicked. I see a dude just stomping on her head."
The prosecution's witnesses on Tuesday described kicking Ms. Jernigan as she lay prone in the parking lot between two cars.
As he was tussling with one of the men, Robert Finley, Swan said he heard his girlfriend on the ground, screaming for help.
He pushed Finley off of him and pulled a 9 mm semi-automatic handun out of his pants.
He started firing.
Allen Austin was killed and Finley, who was shot four times, was injured.
Both men suffered wounds in their backs, said Deputy District Attorney Chris Avetta.
After the shots were fired, the assault stopped, and Swan and Ms. Jernigan fled the scene. They did not go to police, and it was only in 2010, when his DNA was matched to a baseball cap found at the scene that he was charged.
William Difenderfer, who represented Swan, argued that his client was "totally justified" in firing the gun.
He told Judge Mariani that Swan didn't know his attackers and had no idea what they were capable of.
"Consider the realities of the situation," he said. "What these four people did was absolutely outrageous.
"Experience that surprise and terror and hearing my girlfriend screaming as she's beaten? Oh, I think I can use as much deadly force as I want," Mr. Difenderfer said. "The action of that man and his group of friends is what killed him, your honor."
But Mr. Avetta argued that the victims were both shot in the back, and Austin was found about 35 yards away from where the incident began. The progression of shell casings that were found followed him.
"If there was justification at the beginning, that all went out the window when you start shooting at people who are running away," the prosecutor said. "Instead, he's angry. He's looking for revenge."
In rendering his verdict, Judge Mariani agreed that Swan did nothing to provoke the situation.
Still, had the defendant not chosen to illegally possess a gun, it is likely no one would have died, the judge said -- Swan was physically holding his own with his attacker, and could have used the gun to back the man down without firing.
And so, Judge Mariani concluded, Swan's use of deadly force was unreasonable.
He found the man guilty of voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. He likely faces five to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced.
Mr. Difenderfer said there was no proof his client acted unreasonably.
"I'm absolutely disgusted by the verdict."
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.