Hard Case

SONORA--After a four-day trial that laid open the Cardwell family closet, Cody Cardwell was acquitted of murdering his older brother Bill in a confrontation on the family ranch more than three years ago.

The verdict brought to a close a case that has bitterly divided one of Kimble County's pioneering families, but it is unlikely to heal the breach. (See "Blood Feud," November 16.)

On May 5, 1997, Cody, now 80, shot Bill, then 80, once through the chest with a deer rifle, killing him instantly and ending for good the long-running personal and business conflict between the men. In finding that Cody had acted in self-defense, the jury brushed aside prosecution arguments that Cody should have retreated or run from his brother, who was advancing with a set of fencing pliers.

"We tried to get into Cody's mind. Was it his intention not to kill his brother but to bluff him into turning back?" said jury foreman Lewis Allen, a Presbyterian minister in Sonora, 170 miles west of San Antonio. "But Bill was not the kind of man to be bluffed, and he kept coming right square into a cocked and loaded rifle."

When Cody took the stand in his own defense, he left no uncertainty about his personal standard of self-defense: "I don't run from any man."

The forensic evidence also was on his side.

"There was blood on Bill's pliers, on the rifle barrel and stock, and on Cody's shirt, which indicated close range and was consistent with self-defense," said Pat Patillo, who represented Cody. Family members from both sides testified about the episode, about the feud that preceded it, and also about bad behavior by both brothers.

The testimony also revealed that Bill once shot and killed a ranch hand who threatened him with a knife and once used pliers to beat a man in an oil-field fight.

"These are tough, aggressive hard-nosed men," said Allen, and few would have taken issue with his assessment. The jury deliberated two hours before voting to acquit.

Prosecutor Mike Brown said his case was hamstrung by the absence of any independent witnesses to the incident.

"Two men quarreling. One gets shot. There's not a witness except the shooter's wife, and Cody says it was in self-defense. It's a tough case all the way around," Brown said.

During the trial, factions of the Cardwell family occupied each side of the courtroom, but all of the talking was done from the witness stand. The verdict was a bitter pill for Bill's sons.

"We're definitely disappointed," said Odie Cardwell, Bill's youngest son. "It was more or less like a mini O.J. Simpson trial to me." Unexpected was another side of Cody Cardwell that flickered briefly as Odie talked about Bill.

"He said he'd give a pretty penny to have his brother back. He misses his brother, and he loves his brother in a Cardwell kind of way," said Patillo, the defense attorney