The Walker County, Ga., District Attorney said Friday he will not press charges against the homeowner who shot and killed an elderly man wandering on his property. 72-year-old Ronald Westbrook, who has Alzheimer’s disease, had been walking around the Chickamauga area, a rural neighborhood in north Georgia, when he walked onto Joe Hendrix’s property at around 2:30 a.m. Hendrix’s fiancée called 911 and a deputy was dispatched. But before he arrived, Hendrix took matters into his own hands, walking out the front door and firing three or four shots at Westbrook, one of which hit him in the chest.
Hendrix’s fiancée told police that Westbrook was ringing the doorbell and trying to open the door, according to the press release issued Friday by District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin. Westbrook then started walking toward the back of the house, and Hendrix “took a handgun and went outside to confront the man.” The release explains:
Hendrix came around the corner of the house and yelled at Westbrook first to stop and then to come to him. There was no external lighting and the flashlight Westbrook had earlier either was not working or was turned off. Westbrook never verbally responded to Westbrook but began to advance towards Hendrix in what Hendrix described as a quick and aggressive manner.
Hendrix could only see a silhouette figure carrying a cylindrical object in his hand but could not make out anything else. Hendrix shouted at Westbrook to stop. Westbrook made no verbal response but continued to advance towards Hendrix in the same manner. Hendrix retreated to the front of the house. Hendrix was afraid that if the man got by him, his girlfriend in the house would be defenseless. Hendrix shot 3 to 4 times.
In an email to ThinkProgress, Franklin explained his decision not to charge Hendrix: “In interviews immediately after the shooting, Hendrix claimed he acted in self-defense. In Georgia, the prosecution bears the burden of disproving a self defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt. After looking at the facts from Hendrix’ perspective, it would be impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hendrix did not reasonably act in self defense.”
He later confirmed that he was referring to particularly robust protections for homeowners known as the “Castle Doctrine,” which allows deadly force without a duty to retreat to protect the home.
Georgia is one of many states with aggressive provisions that permit 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.
The incident is the latest in a series of fatal shootings by residents who said they feared an intruder. Late last year, 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.