Victim’s “very threatening” actions fueled decision to drop murder charge in Denver protest shooting, DA says

Denver prosecutors decided to drop the murder charge they filed against an unlicensed security guard who fatally shot a man at a 2020 political rally in part because of the victim’s threatening actions immediately before the shooting.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said in an interview Friday that her office did not believe it could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the guard, Matthew Dolloff, wasn’t reasonably acting in self-defense when he shot and killed Lee Keltner.

The decision to drop the second-degree murder charge was difficult, she said.

“The actions of the victim, just before he was shot, were very threatening,” McCann said. “His comments clearly indicated that his intention was to cause injury, or worse, and it mattered what he had with him.”

Dolloff, 32, shot and killed Keltner, 49, on Oct. 10, 2020, after Keltner yelled at the 9News journalist Dolloff had been hired to protect while covering two opposing political rallies in Denver’s Civic Center. One demonstration featured conservative “Patriot Rally” attendees. That group was met by left-leaning counter-protesters.

Photos show Keltner slapped Dolloff in the face while holding a can of bear spray. Dolloff then drew a handgun he had concealed in his waistband and Keltner raised his bear spray. Dolloff shot Keltner as Keltner sprayed the bear repellant at Dolloff.

Prosecutors charged Dolloff with second-degree murder five days after the shooting but decided Thursday they would drop the charge. The case was scheduled to go to trial next month.

Dolloff was not licensed to work as a security guard in Denver and management at 9News has said that they did not request an armed security guard or know that Dolloff was carrying a gun that day. Dolloff did have a valid concealed carry permit, issued by the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office, at the time of the shooting.

McCann said Keltner’s decision to slap Dolloff, his open possession of the bear spray and a threatening comment Keltner made before during the interaction complicated efforts to prove Dolloff wasn’t acting in self-defense.

“It’s a combination of all of that, and the people that were with him and their actions and what they were saying,” she said.

Keltner’s family was blindsided by the district attorney’s decision, his sister, Susan Keltner, said on “The Steffan Tubbs Show” radio program on 710 KNUS on Thursday.

“They explained to me that because my brother went and told them to get the camera out of his face and because my brother slapped him with an open hand, that (Dolloff) had the right to feel fearful for his life,” she said.

Susan Keltner said her family believes the district attorney failed them.

“Let a jury make that decision,” she said. “Why are they are folding over when there is video of him shooting him? It doesn’t make sense.”

Under Colorado law, a person can use deadly force in self-defense only if that person reasonably thinks using less force won’t be sufficient, and the person reasonably believes he or someone else faces an immediate threat of being killed or seriously hurt. There is no duty to retreat under state law, but the action taken in self-defense must be generally proportionate to the attack, experts have said.

It’s the prosecution’s burden to disprove a self-defense claim, not the defendant’s burden to prove self-defense, McCann said.

If the case had gone to trial, prosecutors would’ve asked the jury to consider lesser charges — like manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide — along with the second-degree murder charge, McCann said. But Dolloff’s self-defense argument would’ve applied to those charges as well, McCann said.

“Do I think Matthew Dolloff should have been carrying a gun?” McCann said. “No. I don’t think anybody at a rally should be carrying a gun, but they have a right to if they have a concealed weapon permit. I don’t think this is a great resolution of that situation, but I have to look at the particular actions that happened right before and during the incident where Mr. Keltner was shot. I have to judge and apply the law to those facts.

“It doesn’t mean that I think Dolloff is a great guy, or that he should’ve done what he did. But legally he’s justified, based on the evidence that we have.”

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