Gun law may fuel ‘stand your ground’ cases

The two shootings were eight miles and 16 days apart.

Joe Hendrix said he acted in self defense when he fatally shot Ronald Westbrook, a 72-year-old with Alzheimer’s who had wandered into Hendrix’s girlfriend’s yard in the middle of the night. Hendrix told deputies that he was was protecting himself and his girlfriend when he confronted Westbrook, despite a Walker County 911 operator’s instructions that he wait inside for deputies already on the way.

District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin announced earlier this year that he would not pursue criminal charges against Hendrix for the Nov. 11 shooting.

A week before Westbrook was killed, Fred Youngblood in neighboring Catoosa County shot and killed 17-year-old Dalton McConathy, one of three teenagers who came to his house in search of scrap metal. The 69-year-old Youngblood has argued he was “standing his ground” when he fired from his balcony into his back yard, hitting McConathy. Franklin was still trying to decide if he would charge Youngblood when the elderly man died this month.

At the heart of the controversy around stand your ground — or self-defense, with no duty to retreat — is the legitimacy of the shooters’ contentions that they used deadly force to save themselves or someone else. That requires prosecutors to try to put themselves in the frame of mind of the shooters, and make difficult judgment calls.

Critics say too often the law lets murderers to go unpunished. And Georgia’s newest gun law that allows firearms in more places, they say, could mean more shootings and more claims of self-defense. That law, which was signed by the governor last month and takes effect July 1, says that even felons can use the defense.

After Youngblood died at a local hospital, McConathy’s family released a statement expressing their disappointment that the teenager’s killer was never charged. “Between the failure of the prosecution to charge him and this recent development, the family now mourns the now permanent denial of the application of justice,” they wrote.

One criticism of the stand your ground law is that it’s applied unevenly at every step — when the police decide to make an arrest, when a prosecutor or judge decides if a shooting was a case of stand your ground or when a jury agrees or disagrees with a defendant’s argument they had to shoot because they or someone else was in danger.

“We prosecute based on the mindset of the person and the facts available,” Franklin said.

But all the attention on such cases may be causing the public to question the legitimacy of it, said Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who earlier this month successfully prosecuted a woman in a trial where a stand your ground defense was used.

“People are asking, ‘Do we really need this law in the first place?’” said Howard, district attorney of Georgia’s largest county. “I believe people are saying, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not what we expected.’ The publicity has raised the antennas of people. … They’re giving it more scrutiny.”

In Howard’s recent case, Shakeithia Wheeler, 32, put forth a stand your ground defense in the shooting of 28-year-old Charles Roberson. Wheeler said she went outside when she heard her brother and Roberson arguing. She got involved in the argument and eventually shot Roberson, who was not armed. She was convicted of murder.

Self-defense has been argued for centuries. The Georgia Supreme Court first upheld justifiable homicide in the late 1800s. “No duty to retreat” was added to state law in 2006, giving birth to the stand your ground defense in Georgia.

“We’ve just taken a law that’s been codified for 75 years, maybe 100, and given it a new name,” said District Attorney Pete Skandalakis, the prosecutor in five west Georgia Counties. He has had two recent cases where the defense was raised.

Georgia State University Law School professor Russell Covey says it seems stand your ground seems to be claimed more often since since George Zimmerman argued he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin more than two years ago in Florida in self defense. A jury acquitted Zimmerman of the charge he murdered Martin.

“What’s surprising about these cases that have been in the media is the leeway prosecutors have given defendants,” he said. “It does seem like people confuse their legal right to arm themselves and to protect themselves with the right to use aggression in any kind of situation.”

Said Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson: “If it’s not clear cut, I would take it before a grand jury.I would rather a judge or jurors decide that.”

In one case, two different prosecutors saw it differently even after a jury had decided.

Former Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head prosecuted John McNeil on charges he murdered his contractor, Brian Epp, in 2005. McNeal said it was self-defense. Head, in a previous interview, was adamant that it was a case of murder, pointing out that McNeil had said in a recorded 911 call that he would not wait for the police and he planned to beat up Epps. McNeil was convicted and sent to prison.

But an appellate judge ordered a new trial on the ground that the jury wasn’t told McNeil had the right to use deadly force to defend his son and his home, as well as himself. And last year, rather than take the case back to a jury, newly elected Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds, Head’s successor, decided not to retry McNeil.

“I thought that fact pattern could arguably have been a circumstance where stand your ground was appropriate,” Reynolds said.

In the end, McNeil pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was freed from prison after already serving seven years.

In two stand your ground cases Skandalakis, one ended in a conviction and the other in acquittal.

Herman Smith is serving life in prison for killing Cardarius Stegall at a Carrollton birthday party. Stegall waved a gun and threatened to shoot people and then headed toward Smith. Smith pulled his own gun and fired. Smith argued self-defense and that he had no duty to retreat, but the jury said it was murder.

Yet, in neighboring Coweta County, Adam Lee Edmondson was acquitted after using stand your ground as his defense for killing James Christopher Johnson III. An argument between Johnson and Adam Lee Edmondson started after Edmondson “made a rude gesture” to Johnson’s girlfriend, according to witnesses. The disagreement was resumed the next night at the same Newnan bar . When Johnson shoved Edmondson, Edmondson left the bar but returned with a gun he used to kill Johnson,

“Neither one of those cases, in our opinion, was a stand your ground case,” Skandalakis said.