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Court rules SC man acted in self-defense in father's killing, charge dismissed

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Austin Mendez (left), then-25, shown in a mugshot following his arrest on a murder charge in the July 7, 2017, fatal shooting of his father, Richard Mendez. File/Provided

A 27-year-old Greenville County man will not a face a manslaughter trial in his father’s killing after a judge ruled Austin Mendez acted in self-defense when he used deadly force to save his mother from a brutal beating.

Circuit Judge Letitia Verdin recently granted Mendez immunity from prosecution under the state’s “stand your ground” law, which allows people in certain situations to use deadly force when defending their property or facing imminent serious injury.

Mendez had faced up to 30 years in prison for the July 2017 fatal shooting of his father, 50-year-old Richard Mendez, during a confrontation at the family's home in the Upstate suburb of Taylors.

But Verdin found his actions were justified that night. The judge stated that Austin Mendez and and his mother, Kara, were in grave danger from a man caught "in an increasingly downward spiral of abusive behavior." Richard Mendez was an angry alcoholic who had physically abused his wife and eldest son, threatened to kill them and had multiple guns hidden throughout their house, the ruling stated. 

"Mendez faced a mortal threat from the Deceased and his actions to defend his mother and himself were both reasonable and necessary," the judge concluded in her 31-page ruling issued in late June. 

Mendez and his family could not be reached for comment this week. A family spokesperson said the family did not wish to discuss the case at this time. 

Thirteenth Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins' office initially pursued a murder case against Mendez, though a Greenville County grand jury later indicted him on a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter. Marcia Barker, a spokeswoman for Wilkins, said prosecutors accept the judge's ruling and have no further comment on the case. 

"We just don't have anything to say about this," she said. 

A history of violence

The case had pitted Wilkins’ office against advocates who normally work with prosecutors to convict abusers. It also underscored deep-seated disagreements about what constitutes domestic abuse in a state that is among the nation’s deadliest for women killed at the hands of men. And it reignited a debate about when deadly force can be used to save a loved one from dangers within their own family.

Kara Mendez told The Post and Courier last year that her son saved her life that night, sparing her from another pummeling at the hands of a rage-filled, domineering man who had abused her for years. She described how problems had escalated after the family moved in 2016 from Michigan to Greenville County, where Richard Mendez had landed a job with General Electric. 

Judge Verdin recounted a litany of threats and violence in her ruling, noting that text messages, audio recordings, photos and medical records bolstered witness testimony about Richard Mendez's "lengthy and worsening history of alcoholism and domestic violence." Among other things, Richard Mendez had struck Austin with a hammer; tried to strangle him during an argument; punched, choked and whipped his wife with a belt; and repeatedly pulled out guns and threatened to kill his family while drunk, the ruling stated.

In a 2015 tirade captured on his younger son's cell phone, Richard Mendez described how he would "take down" his family and in what order, the judge stated. Another recording, from April 2017, chronicled threats Richard Mendez leveled against his wife after learning she had discovered his affair with a paramour and had consulted a divorce attorney. He threatened to shoot her, claim self-defense and collect on a $1 million life insurance policy he had taken out on her, the ruling stated. 

"What would a real man do?," Kara Mendez said to him.

"Shoot you," he replied, according to a written transcript of the call. "The bullet is cheaper because a bullet costs 50 cents and there's always that million dollars. It's a win for me."

A deadly night

His killing occurred July 7 of that year, shortly after Richard Mendez and his wife returned home from an evening out. The ruling, and previous interviews with the Mendez family, said the incident played out this way:

An argument broke out, and Richard Mendez threw his wife across their bedroom, punching and kicking her while screaming threats. 

Her younger son, Alex, heard the commotion and texted his brother to come help. Austin came running, armed with a pistol.

"I thought this was it," Austin Mendez would later tell authorities. "I thought he was going to kill her for sure."

After hearing their father threaten to “punch her teeth down her throat,” Austin Mendez burst into the bedroom and found his father standing above his mother with a fist raised. Austin Mendez fired two shots as his father lunged at him, both rounds striking Richard Mendez in the face. Richard dropped to the floor and died.

While some witnesses testified at the court hearing that Kara Mendez did not appear injured on the night of the shooting, the judge noted photos and medical records that documented bruising on her body and a torn rotator cuff. The judge also found that Richard Mendez had attacked his son without provocation and presented a clear threat to Austin; he was larger, and had a gun in his nightstand. 

"Based on the Deceased's threats to kill them all, the prior attempts at strangulation, the previous infliction of serious bodily injuries, and repeatedly pointing a loaded pistol, (Austin) Mendez had a reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent a violent crime," the judge concluded. 

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Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a Connecticut native and a longtime crime reporter.