A Carver County man’s claim that he feared for his life when he fatally shot an unarmed driver following a roadside argument in St. Paul is emerging as the latest test of the state law that dictates when deadly force is allowable.
Anthony J. Trifiletti, 24, of Watertown, told police he feared for his life before opening fire on 39-year-old Douglas C. Lewis, striking him four times Friday night after Lewis collided with Trifiletti’s car and the two argued along the side of Burns Road off Hwy. 61. Trifiletti alleged that Lewis appeared to be reaching toward his waistband as he advanced toward Trifiletti.
Trifiletti, who is charged with second-degree murder, remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bail. His first Ramsey County court appearance was pushed to Friday so that he can hire private legal counsel.
Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Tom Shiah, who filed that request, declined to comment until he’s formally hired by the family.
“There’s another side to this,” Shiah said. “He’s asserting a claim of self-defense.”
But that narrative contradicts two bystander accounts and, criminal defense attorneys say, isn’t guaranteed to meet the state’s high threshold for justifying deadly force. It’s the latest controversial case to hinge on Minnesota’s legal definition of self-defense, which requires individuals take a life only as a last resort.
“Self-defense does not mean that if you just feel scared then you can use lethal force,” said Joe Tamburino, a longtime Twin Cities criminal defense attorney who has no involvement in the Trifiletti case. “All force has to be reasonable to the threat.”
According to the charges filed Monday, Trifiletti never saw a weapon during the altercation and he faced no direct threat of violence. He is legally permitted to carry a firearm in public.
“In this kid’s case, he has a duty to retreat,” Tamburino said. “If you’re going to carry a gun — which you have the right to do — you’d better know when to pull the trigger.”
Under Minnesota law, lethal force by a civilian is justified only if four criteria are met: You must reasonably be in immediate fear of death or great bodily harm to yourself or another, be a reluctant participant, have no reasonable means of retreat, and lesser force will not suffice.
Unlike states with so-called “stand your ground” laws, Minnesota says that those who feel threatened have a duty to retreat — unless they are in their own home. Juries are instructed to consider the circumstances and whether it was a decision a reasonable person would make in light of the perceived danger.
Cases like these rest on the credibility of a defendant and almost always require that they take the stand to testify, said defense attorney Ryan Pacyga.
“You need to get the jury to understand what your client was thinking, feeling and sensing — not only in that split second, but leading up to the moment, during the moment and after the moment,” he said. Some jurors may worry that the defendant had a “hero complex,” Pacyga said, so it is the defense team’s job to convince them it wasn’t possible to escape and why shooting was, in his mind, the only option.
Trifiletti’s case bears similarity to that of Alexander Weiss, a 25-year-old Rochester man who shot and killed 17-year-old Muhammed Rahim at point-blank range during a confrontation over a fender bender in 2018. Weiss claimed he fired in self-defense after the teenager pushed him in the chest and dared him to shoot.
Olmsted County prosecutors ultimately dismissed the second-degree murder charges last year following two mistrials. Neither jury was able to reach a unanimous verdict.
More permits to carry
More than 300,000 Minnesotans have permits to carry firearms in public — a number that has nearly doubled over the past six years.
Those who apply for permits must complete training with a certified instructor, pay a fee and pass a criminal-background check. Once a year, the state is required to run additional checks on permit holders to make sure they have not become a prohibited person or are thought to be a danger to themselves or others.
Rob Doar, political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, pointed to the annual Bureau of Criminal Apprehension report as proof that a only a small fraction of permit holders commit crimes each year.
“The numbers are much lower than the general public,” he said.
Last year, there were 61 instances across Minnesota when authorities determined that someone with a permit was convicted of using a firearm in a crime. Half of those involved weapons violations, such as not having the permit paperwork along, driving under the influence of alcohol or having a firearm in a courthouse or a school. None was for homicide.
Since permit-to-carry became law in 2005, 11 people with permits have been convicted of homicide and using a gun in the crime.
Protect Minnesota, an advocacy group focused on gun-violence prevention, decried the Trifiletti case on Facebook this week as a road-rage killing made possible by the presence of a firearm.
“Having a loaded gun at the ready with a permit to carry it around in public is a recipe for carnage,” organizers wrote. “Shooting first and asking questions later is never OK. Never.”
Social media likely excluded
Lewis’ family and friends say Trifiletti, who is white, perceived Lewis, who is black, as a threat because of his race and is now claiming self-defense as an excuse.
“White people can get away with killing a black man by saying they were afraid,” Lewis’ sister Valerie Lewis told the Star Tribune. “He killed my brother in cold blood.”
Trifiletti’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts depict a young man who loves motor sports, firearms and partying with friends. Pictures plastered on multiple social accounts depict Trifiletti holding a gun alongside two gun-toting friends with the caption, “Do you love your country?” Another photo with him raising a gun in each hand says, “Stay locked and loaded.”
But some posts mock particular ethnic groups.
In a Facebook Live video from 2016, Trifiletti slams a beer as he prepares to let his buddies take turns shaving his head. He casually uses a racial slur, as a girl glares at him, before a friend responds: “He said [racial epithet]. That’s racist.” Trifiletti laughs. Then someone in the background makes a disparaging remark about Jews. A second video includes a male friend mocking Asians while he finishes shaving Trifiletti’s head.
But attorneys say none of that material is likely to be admissible in court. Unless prosecutors find evidence that aggravating factors elevate the shooting to a hate crime, old social media posts aren’t germane to the investigation.
“As distasteful as any racial slurs are, the question becomes whether it is relevant to a trial — and is there a danger of unfairness that would inflame the passions of a jury?” said Pacyga, the defense attorney.
However, that brings little solace to a family whose grief is inflamed by what they see as the character assassination of Lewis. From his weekend memorial, Leroy Lewis demanded justice for his nephew.
“I hope he rots in there,” he said.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648