UPDATE 2.2.12: The jury sentenced James Michael Tesi to 35 years in prison.
A self-described “sovereign citizen,” who also called himself a “Moorish American,” has been convicted in Fort Worth, Texas, of shooting at a police officer who tried to arrest him for traffic violations last summer.
James Michael Tesi, 49, was taken into custody following the jury verdict Tuesday, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. The 12-member jury immediately began the penalty phase. Tesi faces up to life in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Tesi, an occupational therapist, was charged with aggravated assault on a public servant with a deadly weapon. The charge stems from a series of encounters he had with police for not wearing a seat belt, speeding, failing to show up in court and not producing a valid driver’s licenses.
Like growing numbers of sovereign citizens, Tesi apparently believed state and federal laws don’t apply to him.
A recent FBI report labeled sovereign citizens the most significant domestic terrorism threat, and a particularly dangerous one for law enforcement. “Law enforcement and judicial officials must understand the sovereign-citizen movement, be able to identify indicators, and know how to protect themselves from the group’s threatening tactics,” the report said.
The Fort Worth shooting is just the latest in a growing list of encounters between police and sovereigns. In May 2010, two West Memphis, Ark., officers were shot dead when they stopped a father-son team of sovereigns.
When Officer John Fossett saw Tesi driving last July 21 in the Fort Worth suburb of Hurst, the officer knew there was a warrant for his arrest and followed the fugitive to his home. After parking his vehicle in his garage, Tesi came out firing a weapon. The uniformed police officer returned fire, wounding Tesi in the face and leg. The officer was unharmed.
During the five-day trial, defense attorney Ronald Hardin attempted to cast doubt on the police version of the shooting. In closing arguments, he urged jurors to concentrate on physical evidence and said the police officer gave three versions of what occurred. His client, meanwhile, feared for his life. “He knows in his mind that officer Fossett is there to kill him” because of his beliefs, the defense attorney said.
After being shot in the exchange of gunfire, Tesi said, “If I’m going to die, I wanted to die at home,” Hardin told the jury.
But the jury didn’t buy the defense’s explanation and apparently agreed with the prosecutor, who said that Tesi did not shoot in self-defense. “You don’t get to intentionally evade an officer, send threats to the city or pull a gun on an officer,” Tarrant County prosecutor Jim Hudson told the jury. “Mr. Tesi is not on trial for his beliefs.”