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Shooting People from a Car in Alleged Self-Defense Is No Crime in Arizona

No witnesses saw the gruesome end of a road-rage clash between Scottsdale lawyer David Appleton and ex-rodeo cowboy Paul "Tom" Pearson in the dark parking lot of a CVS Pharmacy on the evening of November 10, 2011.

As Appleton tells it, speaking publicly for the first time about the incident, the "moment of truth" came as he flailed against the seat belt of his blue Toyota FJ Cruiser, his neck firmly in the grasp of the bigger man reaching through the driver's-side window with his left hand.

"He used an expert chokehold," says Appleton, now 61. "He had big hands, and I'm a little guy . . . His middle finger was on my right carotid [artery], and his thumb was on my left carotid."

The lawyer says he tried to peel the viselike grip off his neck with one hand, breaking off part of the fingernail of his pinky. It was the only injury he suffered in the fight with Pearson, a 50-year-old family man with a wife and three daughters who was co-owner of a Phoenix auto-parts store.

At that fateful moment, each man had his other hand occupied.

Through the whole exchange, Pearson held his phone, his cousin in Wyoming listening on the other end.

Just below the Toyota's window, Appleton gripped his five-shot double-action .38-caliber Smith & Wesson "Chief" revolver. He'd taken it from the glove box as the two exchanged words on Pima Road in North Scottsdale. Then, before Pearson stormed up to the Cruiser's window, Appleton says, he "transferred" the gun from his right to left hand and kept it "hidden" from Pearson's view.

"When he first ran up and started abusing me, he said, 'You don't have a gun, do you?' I didn't say anything. You never reveal you've got a gun." That's what he was taught in a firearms class he'd taken years ago.

The incident began after a routine day in the life of the 36-year defense attorney. He visited a client in jail. Went to court. Met some friends at Sweet Tomatoes for dinner, where he consumed no alcoholic beverages. Driving north on Pima Road on his way home, he says, Pearson, in his silver Honda Ridgeline, cut him off and taunted him at a stoplight. They exchanged obscenities.

It's unclear why the two men became so angry at each other. But a touch of road rage was nothing unusual for Appleton, who'd called 911 on two separate occasions earlier that year to report altercations with other drivers. Still, there's no doubt that Pearson played a role in what happened next.

When the light turned green, Pearson began tailgating Appleton and followed him for more than two miles, the attorney says.

Pearson lived in the Los Gatos subdivision off Pima Road and was on his way home from work at the auto-parts store. As they continued north, the two road-ragers passed the light for the Los Gatos turnoff. It's clear that the former professional rodeo rider simply could've turned left at that light and gone home. But he tailed Appleton up the road a little farther to the CVS, where Appleton turned in.

The two vehicles stopped, and Pearson got out of his Honda and approached Appleton's Toyota. He grabbed the lawyer's wrist, but Appleton says he was able to break free. Then, according to the lawyer, Pearson used the clamp-hold on his neck.

Appleton says he realized the time had come to act — or die.

"I'm getting lightheaded. I'm starting to lose consciousness," Appleton says. "And so I displayed the gun."

He raised his weapon. Pearson, he says, only "squeezed harder."

He says Pearson told him in a strangely even voice, "Don't shoot me with that gun." He says Pearson still was holding his neck.

The lawyer, a self-described marksman, says he aimed for what he thought was a non-fatal shot to his attacker's abdomen. But the bullet he fired severed Pearson's spine.

Pearson didn't let go immediately, Appleton says, causing him to wonder for a brief moment whether he'd need to fire again. Then, Pearson staggered backward and collapsed to the ground. Seconds later, the lawyer called 911 to report that he'd shot a man. A few minutes after that, police had Appleton on his knees at gunpoint.

Except for details like the 911 call, most of this information comes from just one source — Appleton. Pearson's cousin in Wyoming heard yelling and heard Pearson say, "Don't shoot me with that gun," but not much else. The pharmacy didn't have security cameras outside. Pearson was alive but unresponsive when help arrived minutes later. He was rushed to Scottsdale Healthcare Thompson Peak Hospital, where he was pronounced dead just after 8 p.m.

Some evidence of a struggle was found, a Scottsdale police report shows:

The broken nail on Appleton's little finger. A few popped buttons on his shirt, two of which still were in the Toyota (Appleton says a third fell outside when he opened the door after the shooting). Blood and gunshot residue were discovered on the Toyota's window frame, and the driver's-side door mirror was pushed inward and marked with a faint imprint of the fabric of Pearson's shirt.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.