A 22-year-old Henrico County man’s 17-month fight to establish his innocence in the shooting death of his father came to an end Thursday in a flood of tears, relief and thanks.
“The court finds you not guilty,” Henrico Circuit Judge Gary A. Hicks concluded, setting in motion a frenzy of joy after a three-day trial and a long summary of the case that Hicks said established Michael A. Luedecke’s innocence of voluntary manslaughter in his father’s death in November 2013.
Luedecke’s younger brother, Jonathan, 19, a Marine, credited Michael with saving his life during an emotional appearance on the witness stand Wednesday, when he sobbed uncontrollably recalling how his father, Jeffrey, 51, fought to gain control of an assault rifle during an unprovoked attack on his two sons in the family home.
On Thursday, Jonathan’s face again turned red, but this time at joy over the verdict, and he leaped over a rail separating him from his brother at the defense table to wrap the young man in a bear hug. “First time that’s ever happened,” a deputy sheriff said as family members gathered around Michael Luedecke and defense lawyers Jeffrey Oppleman and Matthew Zwerdling.
Michael Luedecke, who’d been beaten and choked moments before the attack on his brother, grabbed a pistol and shot his father in the head from about a yard away. It ended what family members said had been a lifetime of fear living in the shadow of an angry man who hoarded weapons, demanded attention and even threatened to kill neighborhood dog walkers.
“I’m just so happy to have my life back,” Luedecke said, thanking his family and defense team.
“I’m going to show people that I can contribute something positive and not take a back seat,” he said. “I want to be able to give back to the community and show people that there are positive things that I can contribute.”
Tammy Luedecke said that her husband’s violent death and the turmoil that raged for years within the family is a reflection of the state’s weak laws providing protective orders to people in fear.
In court, explaining why she had not taken steps to protect herself and family from her husband, she described a protective order as “a piece of paper that can’t stop a bullet.” She said that throughout her time with Jeffrey Luedecke, she had to disguise or explain away bruises and feared for the safety of the children.
Michael Luedecke told the court that he considered being hit by the father something that happened in every family, a sign of authority.
He was arrested the night of the shooting and underwent a long police interrogation, during which he cursed himself when alone and failed to mention the battle for control over the rifle. He also misrepresented key details of the events leading up to the shooting.
But Hicks described the testimony in the case as largely consistent and clearly felt sympathy for Michael Luedecke, whom he described as a person who’d “walked on eggshells” all his life.
The judge ruled that there was ample evidence that the shooting saved the life of Jonathan Luedecke and possibly those of Michael and his mother.
In his findings, the judge recounted how Michael Luedecke discovered his brother being pinned against a piece of furniture by his father as the two struggled over the assault rifle. The judge mentioned that photos showed an injury to Jonathan’s foot where his father had stepped on him to immobilize him.
“Jonathan said he believed he was going to die and this is amply supported,” Hicks said.
The judge called the testimony from family members “uncontradicted and credible” and said that Michael Luedecke “reasonably feared he was in danger of being killed” and was therefore justified in using necessary force to protect himself and his family.
Oppleman had said that Luedecke, who worked part time as a Transportation Security Administration guard at Richmond International Airport, was acting reasonably and in self-defense. “This gentleman is not a villain; he’s a hero,” Oppleman earlier told Hicks.
Henrico prosecutors had agreed at the outset of the trial Tuesday to reduce a second-degree murder indictment, which carried up to 40 years in prison, to voluntary manslaughter, which is punishable by a maximum of 10 years. Luedecke had originally been charged with first-degree murder.
“It all happened so fast,” the judge said, referring to years of strained relations in the house that somehow became the norm and culminated in the final encounter with the elder Luedecke, whose own mother sided with the children and their mother.
Jeffrey Luedecke worked as a self-employed contractor and took several medications, but his psychiatric condition was not a part of evidence in the case. The Luedeckes had been married about 20 years.
Hicks spoke to the seemingly calm appearance from outside the home. But he said “things were not always as they appeared to be. The atmosphere was toxic; the atmosphere was incendiary.”
“Mere words alone do not constitute a threat,” the judge said, “but here we have much more.”