Crime & Courts

It was self-defense: Richland jury finds Waffle House shooter not guilty

Accused murderer Eric Nixon at the defense table during Tuesday’s closing arguments
Accused murderer Eric Nixon at the defense table during Tuesday’s closing arguments John Monk

A Richland County jury has found a defendant not guilty in a fatal 2017 shooting at a Columbia-area Waffle House restaurant, finding the shooting was self-defense.

The encounter between two admittedly hot-headed strangers — one armed and one unarmed — lasted just 44 seconds and left Wayne Bell, 28, shot in the abdomen, dying within minutes outside the Waffle House restaurant in the 200 block of Stoneridge Drive, off Greystone Boulevard near Interstate 26.

The shooter, Eric Nixon, 36, was charged with murder, unlawful possession of a handgun and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

The jury returned its verdict Tuesday night after deliberating more than three hours.

Defense attorney Micah Leddy said the jury either believed the shooting was a case of self-defense or the state failed to prove that it was a case of murder “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“My guy tried to leave. The other guy followed him out, yelling at him, saying he better have a gun, and then charged at him. Anytime you claim self-defense, the state has to disprove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” Leddy said in an interview Wednesday.

“It was not a who-done-it,” Leddy said. “There’s no doubt my client shot and killed Wayne Bell. The only conclusion is the jury thought it was self-defense.”

A bystander’s video of the incident, which was played for the jury, showed Nixon exiting the Waffle House after a brief argument with Bell. The video also showed Bell quickly following Nixon. Up until then, eyewitness testimony indicated Nixon was the aggressor, police said.

“The case really came down to that video,” Leddy said. The video showed all the witnesses, albeit perhaps innocently, were telling “the completely wrong story. ... I really had underappreciated just how bad eyewitness testimony could be until I got this case.”

Leddy said he uncovered the bystander’s video by going through evidence that prosecutors were required to turn over to defense lawyers. Leddy tracked down the bystander who took the video — a University of South Carolina law school student — and then secured the video.

Lawyers made closing arguments to the jury Tuesday afternoon.

“Wayne Bell had no idea he was going to walk out and get shot and bleed out in the parking lot of a Waffle House,” 5th Circuit assistant prosecutor Josh Golson told the jury.

Golson played the video showing Bell and Nixon arguing inside the Waffle House. Then, Nixon left and Bell followed him outside. Bell is just outside the Waffle House when a gunshot rings out.

Immediately following the shooting, Nixon went to his house, removed all his clothing and hid his .45-caliber pistol behind some furniture, Golson told the jury. “Are these the actions of an innocent man? Absolutely not.”

In an initial interview with Columbia Police Department investigator Matthew McCoy, Nixon admitted shooting Bell, said the prosecutor, who repeated comments made by Nixon to McCoy to show the defendant’s alleged cold-bloodedness:

“He died fast ... I didn’t even get to finish my beer.”

“As soon as I walked out that door, I pulled my gun.”

“I only shot him once. ... I didn’t need to call 9-1-1.”

Never during that interview, Golson told the jury, did Nixon tell the investigator he feared for his life.

However, defense attorney Leddy told jurors that they should find Nixon fired in self-defense. The law of self-defense allows people to defend themselves if they are in actual danger or if they “reasonably think they are,” the defense lawyer said. “The law allows people to act on appearances.”

After Nixon and Bell argued in the Waffle House, Nixon left and tried to put distance between himself and Bell, Leddy said. Then, Bell followed Nixon out, threatened him, put his hands in his back pockets, suggesting he had a gun and might shoot Nixon.

“At that point, my client is betting his life, his safety on the benevolence of a man he doesn’t know who is acting irrationally, aggressively and who has made it very clear he wishes him nothing but bad,” Leddy said. “The law does not require anyone to gamble they’ll probably be OK when this is all said and done.”