Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Gun charges against 80-year-old man dropped
For more than four decades, Homer "Tank" Wright has run his Englewood tavern with a firm hand like the Army veteran that he is.
A large sign hanging behind the bar reads, "NO PROFANITY OR VULGARITY," a rule he strictly enforces. Wright doesn't allow people to loiter outside his tavern. He monitors the door, only allowing in residents he personally recognizes.
"They know I don't put up with nonsense," said the 80-year-old Wright, who lives in the back of the lounge with his wife.
On Monday, after Cook County prosecutors dropped a weapons charge against him, Wright said he was pleased that his legal troubles were behind him. Last week, the convicted felon was arrested after shooting an early-morning intruder who had broken into his place, sparking outrage among his supportive neighbors and activists.
After court, Wright said he was upset that his .38-caliber handgun was not returned to him by police, leaving him feeling vulnerable in his home and business.
"They have sent me out here to the wolves," he said from the modest bar that is decorated with Christmas lights and a portrait of the late Mayor Harold Washington. "The next time they break in here, I'll have my baseball bat and see what I can do with that. I'm going to do what I have to to protect my wife."
Wright has been robbed at gunpoint and his bar broken into so many times over the years that he moved into the business about a decade ago to keep a closer watch.
"I want a gun to protect me. I don't want to shoot people. I don't bother nobody, and I want to protect myself if somebody bothers me," he said.
Illinois law gives citizens the right to defend themselves if they fear bodily harm. But Wright's past felony weapons convictions made it illegal for him to possess a handgun in his home, prosecutors said last week.
But Monday morning, prosecutors quickly moved to drop the charges against Wright as his family and about a dozen community leaders, activists and residents looked on.
"While the charge was brought in good faith and in accordance with the law, the matter was dismissed today following a thorough review of the totality of the evidence and in the best interests of justice," Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said in a prepared statement.
Daly declined to elaborate on the reasons for the decision, but legal experts said Wright would have been a sympathetic defendant to prosecute.
Ronald C. Smith, a professor at the John Marshall Law School, said a jury likely would have sided with Wright since the shooting occurred in his home.
"No jury was going to convict this guy for defending himself and using a weapon when someone was breaking through the window," Smith said. "If he had been caught on the street with a weapon, the prosecutors would prosecute in a heartbeat."
Public pressure may have influenced the state's attorney, said Robert Loeb, a former Cook County prosecutor who works as a criminal-defense lawyer and as an adjunct professor at DePaul University College of Law.
"Nothing changed about his right to have a weapon — he still didn't have that right," Loeb said of the convicted felon. "But the fairness of charging an 80-year-old man defending himself during a burglary made them realize that's not the person they should be prosecuting."
Wright was arrested March 26 after he shot a teenage burglary suspect and police discovered he had two prior weapons convictions decades ago. In 1994, he was charged with unlawful use of a weapon by a felon after a witness told police Wright threatened him with a gun. The first conviction occurred in the 1960s.
After Wright's recent arrest, his neighbors rallied to his defense. The dismissal of the unlawful use of a weapon charge was welcomed by supporters.
Darryl Smith, an Englewood activist, said many in the community felt Wright should have never been arrested and forced to spend 30 hours in police custody.
"Homer Wright is a pillar of our community and he always has been," Smith said. "We are not celebrating, because a person, a kid, still got shot. ... We are still living in a war zone. We still have 19-year-olds climbing through windows, and we still have a lot of shooting and killing.
"We have a lot to get a grip on in our community."
After leaving court, Wright sat in his tavern in the 6400 block of South Morgan Street, watching TV, eating and relaxing before running errands.
Stepping into his lounge is like being transported to another generation. Red vinyl upholstery lines the bar, which is surrounded by deep red swivel stools. The jukebox is filled with soul music from the 1970s by the likes of Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye and Al Green.
Wright moved to Chicago from Birmingham, Ala., in the late 1950s. He served two years in the Army and purchased his bar in 1968.
He has watched the community transform from a stable neighborhood to a crime-ridden, troubled area. Last year, while violent crime remained largely flat throughout the city, murders skyrocketed about 50 percent in Englewood. The bar is located on a block where foreclosures have left a trail of abandoned and boarded-up buildings.
"It is ridiculous, the way it has changed," he said.
"I stayed here too long. I should have left a long time ago, and now I can't go."
At his bar Wright has installed fencing, heavy gates and locks to keep it secure. When customers arrive at the bar, they bang on the heavy, steel door, and Wright lets the regulars in the side entrance.
On Monday, he didn't open the nondescript bar for business, saying he was tired. But he did sell a couple of bottles of beer to customers for carryout.
Tribune reporter Rosemary Sobol contributed.