This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
By Paul Cassell
The recent shooting deaths of Rusty Jacobs and Jesse Bruner have left some people struggling with what words we should use to describe the two. In a society that values moral clarity, there must be no equivocation. One was a murderer and one was hero.
Let's start first with how to describe Jesse Bruner. According to police reports, in the wee hours of Thursday morning Bruner tried to kick in the front door of the Jacobs home. Jacobs, his wife and his son went outside and saw shoe prints on the door, indicating someone had tried to kick the door in. Jacobs went back inside, grabbed a pistol and looked around in his yard. Suddenly Bruner approached feigning an injury and tried to again enter the home. Jacobs blocked Bruner from entering his home, and Bruner then fled the scene. Concerned about what would happen if Bruner managed to escape, Jacobs followed. When Jacobs said something about how he knew who Bruner was, Burner spun around, producing a sawed-off shotgun from his side, shooting and fatally wounding Jacobs.
Bruner was a felon who was not allowed to possess a firearm, much less an illegal weapon like a sawed-off shotgun. And the shooting was a premeditated killing without justification and a killing in the course of an attempted nighttime burglar. That is murder, indeed, aggravated murder, the most serious crime in Utah's criminal code. To be sure, Bruner has not been tried in court. As Jacobs fell to the ground, he managed to kill Bruner, who was later discovered to be carrying two large butcher knives and a third knife. But we should not mince words about what Bruner did: Bruner intentionally and in cold-blood killed a good and innocent man. Bruner is a murderer.
And how do we describe Jacobs? I knew him a little bit through coaching soccer teams and would have, before recent events, called him a "nice guy." But the actions he took Thursday morning demand a different description.
As Bruner left the area, Jacobs could have remained safely in his own home. I suspect many people, myself included, would have been petrified to go anywhere else. But to paraphrase a recent Marines recruiting advertisement, there are a few who move toward the sound of danger. Jacobs was one of those. He knew of a recent string of burglaries in his area. He knew that while a 911 call had been made, the police had not yet arrived. And he knew that if the man who had tried to kick down his front door in the dead of night escaped, others in the neighborhood might face Bruner next. And so Jacobs turned to toward the sound of danger and followed.
I have read recent social media debates where people have dissected this decision. But in circumstances like these, we must never permit even one second of victim-blaming to creep into our discussions. Armchair quarterbacking is always easy. It is much more difficult to make a split-second decision at two in the morning. And what requires even more moral fiber is to make a decision to do something for the good of one's community, rather than to take the easy way out and do nothing. Jacobs did something not for himself, but for the love of others.
As a result of Jacobs' pursuit, all of us in Salt Lake County are a little bit safer. An armed and dangerous felon is no longer on the loose. The dictionary definition of a "hero" is "one who shows great courage." That is only word we can properly use to describe Rusty Jacobs.
Paul Cassell is the Ronald N. Boyce President Professor of Criminal Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.