Law of Self Defense: Life Sentence Affirmed for “Warning Shot” That Hurt No One
GA Supreme Court upholds application of felony murder in case of claimed defense
This case of the week, Williams v. State, is out of the Georgia Supreme Court, in a decision handed down just last week, and involves a man whose claimed “warning shot” earned him life in prison, even though the bullet he fired wasn’t proven to have harmed anyone.
Stoplight Confrontation Between Two Groups
The facts involve two groups of men stopped at a red light who get into a lethal confrontation. The Defendant was in the front passenger seat of his friend’s Ford Mustang, with others in the back of the car. The Defendant and others in the Mustang were armed. A Dodge Challenger rolled up next to the Mustang containing several other men. The two groups had some pre-existing animosity, and began to yell at each other.
The verbal confrontation escalated when people emerged from the Challenger. A few from the Mustang got out in response to fight with those people, but the Defendant remained in his seat.
Defendant Perceives a Gun, Fires a Warning Shot
The Defendant would later claim that he believed one of the men from the Challenger possessed a gun, and that as a result of this perception the Defendant fired a single “warning shot” through his open window into the air. After he fired, one of the others in the Mustang with him fired a shot that killed one of the men from the Challenger.
The Defendant was charged with numerous offenses and was convicted of felony murder predicated on aggravated assault, and sentenced to life in prison for felony murder concurrent with a 20-year sentence for the felony assault.
The Defendant appealed his conviction on several grounds, two of which we consider here. First, he claimed the judge committed reversible error when he instructed the jury on the definition of felony murder.
Felony Murder Explained
A defendant commits felony murder when someone dies in the course of a felony being committed by that defendant. So you can be convicted of felony murder without having pulled the trigger yourself if you committed a felony during the course of which a death resulted, even indirectly.
Importantly, there can be no felony murder unless a defendant is first convicted of some other felony on which to base the felony murder, and that other felony must be one specified in the indictment used to charge the defendant. Felonies not specified in the indictment are not to be considered by the jury because the prosecutor isn’t arguing that the defendant committed the unspecified felony.
At one point the trial judge instructed the jury that they should consider felony murder based on predicate charges of aggravated assault, aggravated murder, and criminal damage to property. Criminal damage to property, however, was not in the defendant’s indictment, and should not have been included by the judge in the list of underlying felonies in this case. The Defendant argued that this error required a reversal of his felony murder conviction.
What Constitutes Reversible Error?
For an error to be a reversible error three things must have happened. First, the claimed error must have been preserved by an objection. Second, the claimed error must be an actual error. Third, the error must have mattered, meaning the outcome would have been different if the error had not happened. (There are some exceptions to this generalization, e.g. for errors of Constitutional import.)
Here the Georgia Supreme Court agreed that the error was preserved, and that the error was real—that the trial judge made a genuine mistake. They also decided, however, that the error didn’t matter. The jury had concluded that the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant was guilty of aggravated assault, a felony that was specified in the indictment. Further, the prosecutor never argued that felony murder based on criminal damage to property.
As a result, the jury almost certainly based the felony murder conviction on the aggravated assault warning shot on which they also convicted the Defendant. So the trial outcome would not have been different even if the trial judge had not mentioned criminal damage to property.
Deadly Force Defense of “Habitation”
A second basis for appeal is that the Defendant’s lawyer didn’t request a jury instruction on “defense of habitation.” Georgia statute §16-3-23 lets you use deadly defensive force to stop a person who is attempting to violently or tumultuously enter a “habitation” for the purpose of offering violence to persons within. Georgia defines “habitation” rather broadly, to include any dwelling, place of business, or occupied motor vehicle (per §16-3-24.1).
The Defendant argued that his lawyer should have requested the jury be told he had the right to use, or threaten, deadly defensive force against the men from the other vehicle if he reasonably believed those men were attempting a violent and tumultuous entry into the Mustang for the purpose of offering violence to those within. This would have justified his threat of deadly defensive force—his claimed “warning shot.”
No luck, however. The Georgia Supreme Court notes that Georgia has not yet established any precedent that “defense of habitation” applies to someone else’s habitation, and in this case the car was not the Defendant’s. As a result, the Defendant’s lawyer did not make a legal error in failing to request a “defense of habitation” jury instruction.
Warning Shot Gets Defendant Life in Prison
In conclusion, the Georgia Supreme Court held that this Defendant’s “warning shot” was sufficient, on the facts of this case, to warrant his conviction for felony murder and his sentence of life in prison.
You can read the actual decision here.
Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Law of Self Defense LLC
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Defendant deserved that sentence just for being stupid enough to think that firing a “warning shot” was a good idea.
Tom, you and a number of others here – Crawford for one – define a warning shot as stupid. That’s arguable, at least. But then you go and gleefully say because this man did – by your definition – something “stupid”, he “deserves” life in prison. Crawford, whose comment I can see as I write, says “Don’t want to spend life in prison? Don’t do stupid things with guns.” Stupid = criminal. That’s your opinion, and you’re quite happy with it, because it was someone else who did the “stupid” (arguably) thing.
Well, allow me to point out on undeniable fact. We all – including you – do stupid things. And we of the “gun culture” are not exempt – we – all if us have done, or will do – stupid things with guns. That makes the “stupid” (again, that’s a arguable point!) = seriously criminal view pretty darn callous and offensive. Not to mention, stupid. Lots of things are both criminal and stupid. Simple “stupid” is simply not criminal. Show me that code! We’re all getting life!
Question: Which do you think is “stupider”, and which more criminal, an “accidental/careless discharge” or a warning shot? Which more deserves prison? The unaimed careless discharge being much, much more likely to do actual harm than the warning shot.
There seems to be some form of mild insanity associated with such hatred of the warning shot. Cruelty, too.
Nah. That’s ridiculous. Do you know how many expert (and they are, as good as Larry Correia) .. how many expert firearn shooters I’ve seen scree up and misfire, or sweep a friendly position, or even shoot themselves in the foot (I’m talking to you Baltimore SWAT teacher). It’s alot of people.
Firing warning morning shots is getting into tactics not criminality. They went overboard. You should not lose your life for sparing another with a warning instead of a bullet (however ill-advised).
I hereby call BS on the entire state of Georgia.
It sounds reasonable to me. We’re not talking about somebody minding their own business here. We’re talking about 2 groups of thugs that are already in a confrontation, he ‘thought’ he saw a gun, and he fired.
And from the information provided, the only people that fired were the defendant and somebody on his side – leading to the reasonable possibility that if the defendant hadn’t fired then nobody would have fired at all.
Moral of the story don’t hang out with thugs and you won’t get convicted with thugs.
Guilt by association? Really?
Someone robs a bank and shoots a guard or teller and you drive the get away car. Yes, felony murder. Yes. your association made you guilty.
Yes, the law has been abused, where the one who pulls the trigger cops a plea deal and gets a lesser sentence than the accomplice. But, those are the risks of being involved in criminal behavior.
CapTee – You and a number of others here are missing a vital point. You offer the classic bank robbery illustration of felony murder, but that simply does not apply here. When “we” plan to rob a bank I bear some guilt when the robbery goes wrong and you kill someone. Nothing was planned here, this just happened randomly. The connection between the warning shooter and the real shooter is only that they were in the same car, presumably friends. They did not plan a felony together, nor agree to commit one.
Further, a warning shot is fired to end things peaceably when it appears things are getting out of hand. That an idiot came behind him and shot someone – the warning shooter wasn’t part of that plan, it wasn’t his plan at all. This is an anti-gun anti-self defense decision.
Why some commenters here – not saying you – want to act the know-it-all gun rights legal knowledge snob and seem pleased that this guy got life for a warning shot because he was stupid or didn’t do as they would teach is beyond me. In fact, I find it repulsive.
“Guilt by association” ?
If you want to look at it that way, although in Texas it’s often called the Law of Parties. (don’t know about State laws in other parts of the country) Simply put, if you’re engaged in a conspiracy to commit one felony (which in practical fact means that you are running around with and helping the guy who ends up committing the felony) and another felony is committed in the process, then EVERYONE involved is guilty of any felony that was committed, even if they had no intent and did not participate in that particular felony.
Classic example: Bank robbery, the stick up man shoots a guard inside the bank. The getaway driver is guilty of murder, just as if he’d pulled the trigger himself. Lesson: don’t hang out with bad people.
In Florida, he would have gotten either the same sentence for felony murder or 20 years for his own actions: unlawful discharge of a firearm, brandishing a firearm, etc.
“Warning” shot my a$$!. Have you seen the shot pattern of the typical thug? This was most likely a shot aimed at one of the other thugs that just went wide. The typical thug does not go to a shooting range to perfect their aim. They go to the shoe store to project their image. Give them a gun and most likely they will shoot themselves eventually.
Ragspierre, I mean “Technicalities”, that might be considered racist language.
If I’m reading it aright, the linked writeup of the decision doesn’t really match the description here.
It seems to say (based on the trial of the other shooter, Rickman, and not specifically the Defendant here, Williams) that the fight was between the people in both cars, all associated with a rapper, Gibbs (who was also the driver of the Mustang), and three pedestrians. At least two of the occupants of the Mustang exited the vehicle to fight the pedestrians. Two of the three occupants of the Challenger (Williams in the driver seat, Rickman the front passenger seat) fired a fusillade at the pedestrians, Williams necessarily firing over the Mustang, Rickman over both cars. One of the pedestrians was hit and killed.
Defendant Williams claimed that his shot was a “warning”, although the people he was warning were on the far side of the Mustang and in fact nowhere near the Challenger he was driving, and fighting (unarmed) with the occupants of the Mustang (also unarmed), not the Challenger.
Tom Swift – Nice handle. I haven’t read the case, and won’t. My comments here are strictly in reaction to those content and even pleased to see a man jailed for life for firing a warning shot because they personally do not believe in warning shots. Stupid (or just poor tactics) = criminal, that’s the logical fallacy I’m reacting to, and strictly on the fact framework presented by the article we’re all posting to. Per your comment, the article is typical of modern journalism – badly wrong in several basic, vital points.
Is a warning shot constitutionally protected free speech? Anyway, I won’t lose sleep about it in this case.
The title of this and other articles about the event are very misleading.
The title makes it sound like an otherwise innocent person only shot to warn and was overcharged.
He was actually involved in a violent confrontation that resulted in a murder by one of his bud’s.
Same as doing an armed robbery that results in a death, even if you aren’t the one that killed someone.
Agreed! This story has been spun, hard. This happened in the county I live in. It is a wonder there wasn’t a full blown firefight.
It’s meant to be ironic, at least in this case.
“The Georgia Supreme Court notes that Georgia has not yet established any precedent that “defense of habitation” applies to someone else’s habitation”
Are they seriously saying that you have no right of deadly-force self-defense when you aren’t in your own home? That’s what they’re implying here: that if you visit a friend’s home the safe harbor of 16-3-23 doesn’t apply and you can be prosecuted for conduct that, if performed in your own house, would be legal.
“No precedent” is very surprising. Do they simply reject all appeals of non-resident defendants, or is Georgia so peaceful that a non-resident of a dwelling has never had to use deadly force in self-defense?
In this case, there was no evidence that any shots were fired while someone was attempting to gain entry to the defendant’s vehicle. That is required under 16-3-23. IN fact, according to testimony in both the Williams and Rickman cases, all the combatants, including the deceased, were stand on the far side of the adjacent Mustang and not next to the defendant’s vehicle. William’s argument that he was defending the Mustang from unlawful entry. The Court ruled that the statute does not clearly allow for a neighbor to use force to defend an neighboring “habitation” nor does any case law support this. So, in Georgia, there is no statute or case law saying you can lawfully shoot a person climbing through your neighbor’s bedroom window from your habitation.
While I appreciate the article here, I’m unclear as to the point attempting to be made.
William was convicted of being a principle in an aggravated assault perpetrated by he and another man, Rickman, during which one of Rickman’s shots struck and killed an unarmed man not in lawful self defense. Williams was convicted of felony murder for participating in the unlawful actions [aggravated assault] with Rickman, not for simply firing his gun and not striking another. Not a big surprise here.
“I’m unclear as to the point attempting to be made.”
ANSWER: Clickbait and we fell for it!
The point was to explain the law, and he did a very good job of it.
Honestly, I am surprised no one has seen the obvious headline here …
“Man Gets Life in Prison for Issuing Trigger Warning!”
Bad puns aside, this makes sense. They convicted O.J. Simpson of felony burglary because one of his sidekicks had a gun. The fact that O.J. didn’t personally have a gun on him didn’t matter. It was still armed robbery since a gun was present.
Travious Floyd died on May 24, 2015. A grand jury indicted Williams and Rickman more than four months later. The same charges were made against both—murder with malice aforethought, murder while in the commission of aggravated assault and aggravated battery, nine counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery, criminal damage to property in the first degree, and the unlawful possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
I imagine that after a four-month interval there would be no practical way to establish which of the two actually fired the fatal shot. And, apparently, no real need to do so.
Is it possible that the defendant would have been better off actually shooting someone and claiming the victim had a gun?
Is it possible to be involved in a general fracas in which someone else unlawfully uses lethal force, while you lawfully use deadly force against another attacker? If one attacker in a group can kill you and all of them can go to prison for it, does that mean you could have lawfully killed them all (if they are, under the law, collectively guilty of the unlawful use of lethal force)?
The best course of action is not to fire a warning shot at all. Warning shots often lead to exactly the opposite action which the shooter intends to occur. People have been known to shoot back.
Have you ever seen the movie Eldorado with John Wayne? At the beginning of the movie Johnny Crawford sees Wayne, stands up on top of a large rock outcropping and fires a warning shot into the air. Wayne, thinking he is being fired upon, shoots Crawford.
Also, in some states, Florida being one, discharging a warning shot [which is essentially a threat using deadly force] is not lawful unless you can lawfully use actual deadly force against a person. The act of firing the warning shot constitutes aggravated assault.
No warning shots against human beings. They only lead to trouble for you.
One does not want to make bad case law to reach a just decision. I am concerned about the Court using its wand to wipe away the defense of habitation argument.
Does the Court wish to open up the Defense of Habitation Statute to arguments by prosecutors that the law does not apply to a passenger who uses force to defend a vehicle from armed carjackers? Carrying the argument further could a future prosecutor argue the law does not apply to a leased or rented vehicle?
Andrews thoughts would be helpful.
I explained this above. Neither William nor Rickman claimed to be defending the vehicle in which they were sitting from invasion or attack. Williams claimed that he was attempting to defend the neighboring vehicle. This is analogous to using deadly force to stop a burglary or trespass of your neighbor’s house. It is not addressed under statute or in case law.
Great Post Andrew and some really good comments. Some clever appellate lawyering for the defense too.
Rule: never fire a warning shot. If you need to defend yourself, do so and accept the consequences.
My rule is that all warning shots are about neck high. This case is basically about the stupidity of Hollywood, where warning shots are common practice and never lead to unintended consequences. During the trial did anyone say “I did it because I saw it in a movie.” Maybe next week we will see a case where a guy was racking his shotgun as a warning. All that ever accomplishes is letting the other person know where YOU are. These days I almost feel like a freak for having a live round in the chamber. That is why God (aka John Moses Browning) invented safeties. 😉
Safeties were invented by Murphy, not God.
There’s a Gulf War story (not sure if it’s a tall tale) about an Lt giving a Gun Safety class to his troops in the field.
To demonstrate how much faith he had in the double safeties of his 9mm, he pointed the gun at his head and attempted to pull the trigger.
Darwin laughed and Murphy smiled upon him. And both safeties simultaneously failed.
Oh I get it now. The shooter is black. Am I right? Do I even need to look? Maybe there is something to Kappernick’s stupid protest after all. Would we be saying “Thug deserves it”:if some old white guy fired a shotgun into the air, as Creepy Joe Biden advised?
Again – you should not lose your life (life in prison) for sparing another life with a warning shot. That is not Justice.
Maybe the jury didn’t believe the “warning shot” excuse. They saw two gunmen in the Challenger firing at some people on the other side of the Mustang and finally hitting one fatally. Both were eventually charged with the exact same list of crimes, none of which specifically involving the firing of warning shots.
Which gunman fired the fatal bullet probably doesn’t matter all that much.
“Again – you should not lose your life (life in prison) for sparing another life with a warning shot. That is not Justice.”
I tend to agree. The law seems to feel differently. The law essentially says to “just shoot ’em!” Pretty sad, but there it is.
Who is responsible for the headline?
Who is responsible for the headline?
Fen — why do you care about skin color? I don’t. A “warning shot” is a stupid move — arguably escalation — and, as pointed out, he wasn’t acting in his own defense. Don’t want to spend life in prison? Don’t do stupid things with guns.
So in this case, two feuding gangs, I agree that a warning shot just serves to escalate an explosive situation.
It appears that the discussion in general is leaning towards: Don’t even try to warn an assailant. Just kill them.
I know the reasons why “warning shot” is a bad idea, but it just seems that trying something that is short of killing someone is a noble thing. For example, brandishing is also illegal, but police brandish weapons all the time in a hope to get their opponent to drop their weapon, so they don’t have to kill them.