A 72-year-old who suffered from Alzheimer’s was shot dead after wandering onto a man’s property early Wednesday morning, ringing the doorbell and turning the door handle. After Joe Hendrix’s fiancé called 911 to report a possible intruder, Hendrix went outside to take matters into his own hands, and fired four shots at a silhouette in his yard, killing Ronald Westbrook.
Hendrix admitted to shooting Westbrook in the yard of his rural northern Georgia home after calling out to him and hearing no answer. The county sheriff said Hendrix went outside after waiting 9 or 10 minutes for the police, while his fiancé was still on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. The county sheriff said he was “certain” he and his fiancé felt threatened.
The incident is the latest in a series of fatal shootings by residents who said they feared an intruder. Last month, protests erupted while a Detroit-area district attorney mulled whether she would file charges against a homeowner who shot a 19-year-old girl, reportedly seeking help after a car accident. Theodore P. Wafer was ultimately charged with murder, but his lawyer invoked the language of the state’s “shoot first” laws that authorize deadly force in self-defense, suggesting Wafer may seek immunity against charges.
Like Michigan and Florida, Georgia has an aggressive law that permits deadly force in self-defense, both inside and outside the home. Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson told the Times Free Press in Chattanooga, Tenn., that he expected the district attorney to consider Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law in deciding whether to press charges. “In my personal opinion, I believe that [Hendrix] should have stayed inside the house,” Wilson said. “Did he violate any laws by exiting the house? No.”
As in some other states Georgia’s law permitting the use of deadly force in the home is even broader in some respects than the “Stand Your Ground” provision that gained notoriety after the death of Trayvon Martin. Provisions known as the “Castle Doctrine” permit deadly force not just if the shooter fears death or great bodily harm, but also if an individual “forcibly enters … the residence.” It is not clear whether Georgia defines the “dwelling” to include the property surrounding the home such as the porch and yard, as in some other states.
Another recent Georgia incident suggests that mere unwanted presence on an individual’s property may not stop prosecutors from filing charges. In January, prosecutors charged a Georgia homeowner for fatally shooting a man who pulled into his driveway to correct faulty GPS directions. He has not yet gone to trial, where he may raise Georgia’s “shoot first”provisions as a defense.
In an email response to ThinkProgress, Walker County District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin said he is not at liberty to speculate on the facts or the law, but that he will likely meet with the relevant law enforcement agencies to gather information “within the next two weeks.”