State and local prosecutors are reviewing whether Georgia's "stand your ground" law applies in the tragic case of a man who shot and killed a wandering man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the Lookout Mountain region.
Given the dynamics of the shooting, the case could become part of a national prodding around the laws, which were quickly enacted in more than 20 states, including Georgia, after Florida pioneered the concept in 2005.
The laws, which hold that armed citizens have to make no attempt to retreat before shooting at a perceived threat, came into the national spotlight in 2012, after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in July after a furious national debate over whether race plays into the new breed of self-defense laws.
Since then, a number of prominent groups and people, including Trayvon’s parents and even President Obama, have urged lawmakers to reconsider the laws. Critics say stand-your-ground laws dangerously change social dynamics by making it more difficult for prosecutors to charge people who claim self-defense under dubious circumstances.
So far, some studies have suggested the laws have played a role in decreasing crime rates, while other research has shown adopting states have seen noticeable increases in gunshot-related hospital visits. Studies have also yielded contradictory results about whether white or black males are most affected.
The incident in Georgia adds a new twist to the examination of the laws, focusing not on race, but on what kinds of actions qualify as a legitimate threat. During a 2007 symposium by the National District Attorneys Association, concerns were raised that touch on what happened on Wednesday in Georgia: namely, that misinterpretation of clues by an armed person could lead to deadly force being used even when there is no real danger.
For now, the state has not filed any charges against Joe Hendrix, who admits to shooting a 70-something man early Wednesday morning. The man was wearing a light coat and a straw hat in near-20 degree weather when he knocked on Mr. Hendrix’s door at 4 in the morning.
After Hendrix’s girlfriend called police, Hendrix retrieved his handgun and walked into his backyard, where he says he saw the other man in silhouette. After the man didn’t respond to several verbal commands and began walking toward him, Hendrix shot him four times, once fatally.
"In my personal opinion, I believe that [Hendrix] should have stayed inside the house," Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson told the Chattanooga, Tenn., Times Free Press. "Did he violate any laws by exiting the house? No."
"Mr. Hendrix is clearly saddened and heartbroken," the sheriff said. "Mr. Hendrix has to live with his actions for the rest of his life."
Ronald Westbrook, the slain man, was clutching a sheaf of mail when police found his body. According to family, Mr. Westbrook had been suffering for two years from Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that affects memory and reasoning. He had been walking in the cold for four hours with his dog before he approached the home, perhaps drawn by a lit porch light, police said.
The incident came amid an ongoing debate over the conviction of Marissa Alexander, a black Florida mom sentenced under mandatory rules to 20 years in jail for firing a warning shot in what she said was self-defense. This week, Ms. Alexander was released on bond after a judge ordered a retrial of her case, saying the original judge gave a jury faulty information about the stand-your-ground concept.
Critics have claimed that Alexander’s race played a role in the conviction, especially in light of the jury verdict in the Zimmerman trial, where six female jurors came to the conclusion that he acted lawfully when he killed Trayvon after pursuing the innocent teenager, thinking he was a burglar. Zimmerman said he shot Trayvon after taking a beating from the teenager.
Prosecutors have maintained the Alexander conviction was correct, since they say the mom had a chance to leave the premises, but instead actually returned with a gun and pointed it at her husband and children.
Prosecutors say that the shot could have killed or injured the husband and children if fragments had ricocheted in their direction. Alexander said her husband had been acting abusively, and she feared for her own life.
Meanwhile, in Georgia's Walker County, the investigation continues into whether Hendrix committed a crime when he shot Westbrook, or whether it was a legitimate self-defense situation.
Sheriff Wilson said it’s a tough case because he knew Westbrook personally. At the same time, he told reporters that Hendrix and his girlfriend plainly felt threatened.
“We feel like at this point that we should proceed cautiously and with an open mind and let the evidence and the law take its place," Wilson told WRCB-TV in Chattanooga.
Earlier this month, the Rainbow PUSH coalition, headed by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia for what it alleges are uneven interpretations of the stand-your-ground law.