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.

–Andrew

Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Law of Self Defense LLC

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