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Was Fatal Encounter Murder or Justifiable Homicide?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one disputes that Travarla Atwell Saffore, after dropping off a female friend at her parents’ Windsor Hills home, was pursued by a threatening stranger in a car.

What is in dispute is whether Saffore reacted as any reasonable person might when he thought he was in danger.

The stranger, as it turned out, was the woman’s jealous boyfriend. He had chased Saffore through southwest Los Angeles for about 20 minutes last November, before the two men stopped their vehicles near a gas station at Fairfax Avenue and Washington Boulevard and got out to face each other.

At some point, Saffore, who was holding an open pocketknife in his right hand, allegedly punched 21-year-old Ricky Anthony Hubbard in the neck, mortally wounding him by slashing his throat.

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The confrontation resulted in a first-degree murder charge against Saffore, whose trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Late last week, it was rescheduled for June7.

Saffore’s lawyer will argue that his client was acting in self-defense.

“If anything is justifiable homicide, this is it,” defense attorney Michael B. Zimbert said in a recent interview. “My client had been chased by a man who threatened to kill him. Any reasonable person could see that the victim was the aggressor.”

But prosecutors say Saffore, also 21, did not have to resort to such drastic action when he and Hubbard confronted each other. Saffore used a martial arts move he learned as a child to cut Hubbard’s throat, they say.

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“I’m not disputing that he had been chased,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Keri Modder. “But when they stepped out of their cars, the defendant became the aggressor.”

Legal experts say the case is intriguing because Saffore initially was only trying to help a friend who needed a ride home, and because he even tried to get away from Hubbard as they drove through the city. The burden will be on jurors to decide whether Saffore overreacted to Hubbard’s behavior or was justified in striking out, they say.

Prosecutors often file a murder charge unless the homicide resulted from an officer-involved shooting or involved a citizen killing a felon who was committing a crime such as an armed home-invasion robbery, legal experts say.

“When an individual is under risk of attack, the smartest thing to do isn’t necessarily to defend yourself but to retreat quickly or to try and alter the situation by using management techniques to defuse the situation,” said Robert McCrie, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “If those options aren’t available, then a person should try to use minimal force. But that’s often hard to determine.”

Stephanie Sweeney, Hubbard’s fiancee, said at a February pretrial hearing that she and Hubbard, who had been dating for four years, had a disagreement over the phone the evening of Nov. 15.

When Hubbard--who did not have a driver’s license or a car--asked if she needed a ride home, Sweeney told him she’d get one on her own. Several hours later, she called Saffore, a friend she said she had known for two years.

About 2:30 a.m., Saffore borrowed a friend’s white Chevrolet Lumina and drove from his mother’s southwest Los Angeles home to Inglewood to pick up Sweeney. He took her to her parents’ house, and they spoke for a short while in the car before Sweeney went in.

Sweeney, 20, said she was surprised to see Hubbard waiting in a borrowed Chevrolet Camaro. “He said he was going to stay home, and I was going to talk to him at 4 a.m.” She was also a little worried, Sweeney said, because Hubbard had a fiery temper.

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While following Saffore, Hubbard used his cell phone to call Sweeney and asked who Saffore was, Sweeney said. He asked if she was cheating on him. Sweeney told him Saffore was just a friend.

“I was trying to tell him to come back to my house,” she said. “He was just going off on me.... He said, ‘I’m gonna kill him.’”

Along the way, the car Saffore was driving got a flat tire. He pulled over by the gas station.

Working nearby was a construction crew that included Jack Carlson and Albert Sanchez. Both men saw the confrontation between Saffore and Hubbard and testified at the preliminary hearing in February.

Carlson said Saffore stepped out of his car first. Moments later, Hubbard’s car pulled up and he got out too, Carlson said.

Saffore and Hubbard were shouting at each other, but Carlson and Alvarez said they couldn’t make out what was being said above the sound of the construction machinery.

Carlson and Alvarez said Saffore approached Hubbard. The men argued for about 40 seconds, Carlson said. Then Saffore punched Hubbard.

After his arrest, Saffore told police he came to a stop because he had blown his front passenger-side tire when turning onto Fairfax Avenue. He said that he saw a screwdriver in Hubbard’s left hand and that Hubbard had identified himself as a gang member.

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Saffore told police that Hubbard attempted to strike him with the screwdriver. Saffore said he reacted by punching Hubbard and cutting him with the pocketknife. Saffore said he didn’t know how badly Hubbard had been hurt when he left the scene.

Los Angeles police said they had no evidence that Hubbard was a gang member. Det. Frank Weber said investigators found a screwdriver in Hubbard’s right pocket.

Hubbard’s family declined to be interviewed for this story. According to county officials, he was a construction worker who lived with his mother in Gardena.

Saffore, who had recently graduated from American Barber College, grew up in southwest Los Angeles and Culver City. His father, Charles, said he has a 2-year-old son and had been working full time as a barber.

Zimbert, the defense lawyer, said Saffore was arrested several years ago for assault, but no charges were filed. More recently, he was convicted twice of driving while intoxicated, the lawyer said.

Charles Saffore, a retired McDonnell Douglas manager, said he taught his son to first “flee from danger, then fight in order that you don’t become extinct.”

He and his ex-wife, Saffore’s mother, Catherine, attend almost every hearing with other family members. “I know my son’s spirit, and I’m reassured that everything will be OK if we have courage,” Saffore said. “My son was avoiding evil. He would be dead if he didn’t do anything.”


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