LANCASTER – A Palmdale man who shot his roommate in the face two years ago is guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
An Antelope Valley jury on Friday found Nicholas Harper not guilty of murder, but guilty of voluntary manslaughter in connection with the death of 21-year-old James McElroy. The jury also found true the allegation that Harper personally used a shotgun to commit the crime.
“To me, it’s not fair… I’m very hurt and I feel cheated,” said McElroy’s mother, Clemmie Graves. “All the evidence showed that it wasn’t a mistake; it wasn’t an accident.”
On the night of Feb. 7, 2012, Graves received a frantic call from her son’s girlfriend and rushed to the Parkwood Patio apartments in the 38000 block of 20th street east in Palmdale. She found her son struggling to breathe with a gunshot wound to the mouth. McElroy died less than an hour later.
That night, authorities detained Harper, McElroy’s best friend of nearly a decade. Harper initially blamed the shooting on “two black guys”, but he later changed his story and claimed McElroy was killed when a shotgun went off as the two were cleaning it.
Harper was charged with murder about a week after the incident.
During the two-week murder trial, which began May 21, neither side disputed that Harper pulled the trigger. The prosecution argued that the shooting was deliberate, while the defense claimed it was accidental.
Prosecutor William S. Chung presented a theory that there was jealous tension between the two best friends, because McElroy had a lot going for him while Harper’s life was in a downward spiral. Harper’s downward spiral hit rock bottom on Feb. 7, 2012, when his girlfriend broke up with him in a series of angry text messages, partly because of McElroy, according to Chung. Minutes after the final text message, Harper shot McElroy, Chung told the jury during closing statements.
“Because of all the background issues going on, the defendant killed James McElroy,” Chung said.
Though Harper had been drinking and smoking marijuana before the shooting, he was clear-minded enough to toss the gun and then lie to detectives, Chung added.
But defense attorney Hung Du maintained that the shooting was a “tragic accident.” He said his client panicked and told a “horrible lie” but confessed soon after. During his closing statement, Du played Harper’s 9-1-1 call for the jury, which was placed right after the shooting. Harper was frantic, crying and upset on the call, Du said, and that type of raw emotion was not consistent with a cold-blooded murderer.
“Does it make sense that you’re going to murder someone and then immediately try to help them?” Du asked the jury.
The prosecution argued for a murder conviction, while the defense argued for involuntary manslaughter.
The jury went with voluntary manslaughter after a day of deliberating.
Harper is scheduled to be sentenced July 3. He faces a maximum penalty of 21 years in state prison.
“Hopefully he will get the max that he deserves,” Graves said. “I’m hoping that [the judge] at least gives us that much justice.”
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