Driver guilty in Howell road rage killing

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Howell — A 69-year-old man who claimed self-defense in the fatal shooting of another driver has been convicted of second-degree murder in southeast Michigan.

Authorities called it a tragic case of road rage. Derek Flemming was shot when he confronted Martin Zale about aggressive driving near Howell last September.

A jury in Livingston County convicted Zale on Thursday. The jury of four men and eight women deliberated nearly 20 hours over three days before reaching its verdict.

William Valliencourt Jr., the Livingston County prosecutor, said: "The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and three firearms offenses and for that, he is looking at up to life in prison.

"We're very pleased, although nothing can bring Mr. Flemming back to his wife and children. At least the jury has found Mr. Zale accountable for his criminal actions."

Valliencourt said Zale was remanded to the Livingston County Jail pending sentencing June 5 before Judge Miriam Cavanaugh.

Zale, who has high-blood pressure and a heart condition, and will turn 70 in a couple of months, would have faced potential mandatory life in prison without parole if found guilty of first-degree murder.

Under second-degree murder and the three firearms-related offenses, Zale can receive any term of years. At some point, he could be considered for parole.

Melissa Pearce, Zale's attorney, said she, Zale and his family were all "shocked" by the verdict.

"I have not had a chance to talk to the jurors, so I don't know if there was a decision-maker for them or what it was," Pearce said.

Zale was immediately taken from the courtroom after the verdict in front of a number of his family members and relatives.

"Several of his family members are interested in him appealing this (verdict), but that will be his decision and I have not had a chance to talk to him about that," Pearce said.

"He's in shock."

Lawyer William Moore, who represents Flemming's wife, Amy, said she did not want to speak with the news media at the time. As for the verdict, Moore said:

"The jury did their work and we are happy with the job they did," he said. "Justice has been served."

Amy Flemming had told police the couple were on their way after lunch to pick up their children from school when Zale's pickup was driving erratically in front of them. Her husband got out of their vehicle at a stoplight at Grand River and Chilson and walked up to Zale's truck.

Zale told jurors he shot Flemming because he felt threatened as he sat in his pickup. He said Flemming reached into his truck and punched him, but many witnesses said they didn't see a punch.

"I was defending myself," Zale testified. Police found a 9 mm Ruger in the console of Zale's truck.

After being shot, Flemming, a father of two, "dropped to the ground like a marionette puppet having its strings cut," Amy Flemming testified at Zale's preliminary hearing in November.

Assistant Prosecutor Daniel Rose said Zale was safe inside the truck and didn't need to roll down the window if he feared the 43-year-old Flemming.

Zale had "4,000 pounds of protection" — a Dodge Ram pickup. He said Zale should have kept the window up or driven away.

In his closing arguments Tuesday afternoon, Rose said: "This is not a case of standing your ground ... don't buy it. 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. He also must retreat, if possible, from the situation before taking such action.

After the shooting, Zale pulled his vehicle onto the shoulder at Chilson, testimony showed. Zale was standing at the rear of his truck, a cellphone in one hand and a business card in the other, when police arrived a couple of minutes later.

The jury asked to see Zale's truck Wednesday.

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.

Valliencourt praised the Livingston County sheriff's officers for their work during the investigation and trial.

"This was never a case of gun rights or self-defense," he stressed. "This was the unjustified shooting of an unarmed man."

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Associated Press contributed.