Jurors debate fate of Howell road rage shooting suspect
Howell — The fate of a 69-year-old man charged in a fatal road rage case is in the hands of a Livingston Circuit Court jury.
Martin E. Zale of Marion Township is charged with open murder and firearms offenses in the Sept. 2 death of another motorist, Derek Flemming, 43, who was shot in the face as he stood outside Zale’s Dodge Ram pickup truck at the intersection of Grand River and Chilson in Genoa Township.
Zale admits he shot Flemming, but claims it was in self-defense and in fear for his own safety and life.
“This is not a case of standing your ground ... don’t buy it,” assistant prosecutor Dan Rose told the jury in his closing arguments Tuesday afternoon. “This is not a case of self-defense, but a case of murder.”
Rose stressed that a person claiming self-defense must feel he is in imminent threat of being killed or suffering great bodily injury to exercise deadly force. He also must retreat, if possible, from the situation before taking such action.
Defense attorney Melissa Pearce told jurors in her closing argument that “my client did what he thought he had to do. It’s second guessing. Monday morning quarterbacking. People have to make split-second decisions in self-defense.”
She said Zale feared a possible heart attack or being pulled from the truck and beaten by the younger Flemming.
Rose described Zale as a “road bully” and an angry man “wrapped in 4,000 pounds of protection”: his prized Dodge Ram pickup truck. Rose stressed Zale lied to jurors about being in fear of his life and had several options, including simply waiting 18 seconds for the traffic light at the intersection to change and drive away before shooting the unarmed Flemming.
“Instead you roll down your window?” Rose said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Rose tried to poke holes in Zale’s self-defense testimony, including that the confrontation was proceeded by Flemming driving in a “very erratic” manner near Zale before the 3:30 p.m. shooting.
“I knew he was chasing me,” Zale testified, adding he just “wanted to get away” from Flemming’s SUV. Stopped at an intersection, Flemming exited his own vehicle directly behind Zale’s truck and “briskly” approached on the driver side “banging” on the vehicle with his fist, Zale testified.
“He was hitting my truck when I rolled down my window and told him to stop it,” said Zale, who stayed seated in his truck. “I just wanted to tell him to stop beating on my truck ... I like a nice-looking vehicle.
“He hit me in the side of the face,” said Zale, touching his left cheek. “Yelling. Screaming ‘What the F are you doing? I’m going to kick your a--.’”
Zale, who has high blood pressure and a heart condition, said he began having chest pains and demonstrated how he leaned away from his window and in the direction of the passenger seat as Flemming reached both of his arms and head inside the driver’s open window to try and open the door.
“I thought ‘I’m in trouble,’” said Zale, who grabbed a 9mm Ruger handgun sitting on top of hockey jerseys on the passenger seat, instantly turned and shot Flemming in the face.
Rose said not one witness corroborated Zale’s account of Flemming having struck Zale or any additional activity except the shooting. Moreover, Rose noted, videotape from a nearby gas station and a passing school bus camera indicates only five seconds passed during the fatal encounter, hardly time for the various actions to occur as described by Zale.
Immediately after the shooting, Zale parked on the shoulder. He “secured his firearm” in the console and stepped out of his truck. He remember he tried to call 911 twice but “for some reason never got through.” His next call, Rose noted during his cross-examination of Zale, was to a Second Amendment-rights attorney.
Zale had testified he has had a license to carry a concealed weapon and belongs to two gun rights groups, the National Rifle Association and the United States Concealed Carry Association — for which he has a gold membership that includes insurance benefits in case of a shooting incident.
“You basically insured yourself in case you ever shot someone, didn’t you?” Rose asked, to which Zale responded: “It’s like automobile insurance you hope you will never have to use.”
In presenting the case against Zale over the past week, Rose had called several witnesses to testify to Zale’s aggressive driving behavior, including a road rage incident in Livonia in 2008 in which he punched another motorist in the face in a McDonald’s restaurant parking lot, action he also referred to as self-defense.
Zale testified he was a careful driver and described himself as a “a very calm person usually.”
The trial has drawn several curious viewers, including Linda Purchase, a retired nursing consultant from Howell.
“I love courtroom drama and watch programs and read books about trials,” said Purchase. “Here’s something happening right in my own backyard. I had to come.
“It makes you think about other motorists you might encounter on the road and what could be going through their minds,” she said. “It makes you kind of nervous.
“It’s also very sad,” she said. “This is a tragedy for both families.”
Relatives and friends of Zale and Flemming were in court Tuesday. Amy Flemming, the victim’s wife, sat writing notes throughout testimony, occasionally clutching a bouquet of flowers.
Flemming was with her husband, sitting in their vehicle, when he was killed.
Jurors will continue deliberating Wednesday. The trial is being supervised by Judge Miriam Cavanaugh.
If convicted, Zale faces up to life in prison.