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December 1, 2013

Yet another sad case of a (reasonable? unreasonable?) use of deadly force in self defense

With the Michigan case involving Renisha McBride's death now the basis for homicde charges, there is now yet another similarly sad case, now from Georgia, involving a lost person getting shot for showing up on the wrong doorstep.  This local story, headlined "Wandering man with Alzheimer's shot, killed in Walker County," provides these details:

An Ooltewah man who shot and killed what he thought was a middle-of-the-night prowler -- actually a 72-year-old man with advanced Alzheimer's disease -- Wednesday in Walker County, Ga., hasn't been charged but he might be later, authorities said.

The slain man, Ronald Westbrook, had walked about 3 miles to the shooting scene from his home on Carlock Circle, Sheriff Steve Wilson said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. When Westbrook was shot, he was clutching letters he had taken from a mailbox on Marbletop Road, where he had lived previously, the sheriff said. A deputy had stopped and questioned Westbrook at about 2:30 a.m. at the mailbox, Wilson said, but Westbrook said he was getting his mail and lived up the hill.

Westbrook then rang the doorbell and turned the doorknob of a home at 188 Cottage Crest Court at 3:54 a.m., awakening Joe Hendrix, 34, of Ooltewah, and his fiancee. They had rented the home in the new subdivision about two weeks ago, next-door neighbor Brandi Wallace said.

Wilson said Westbrook was lost, confused and possibly exhausted. He had wandered for about four hours in the night with his two dogs, wearing a light jacket and straw hat as the wind-chill temperature hovered around 20 degrees. "This one house at the end of the cul-de-sac had a porch light on," Wilson said. "I tend to think [Westbrook] was drawn to that light."

Hendrix's fiancee, whose name Wilson declined to give, called 911 and stayed on the phone with an emergency dispatcher who sent two sheriff's office patrol cars en route. After a nine- to 10-minute wait -- and before deputies arrived -- Hendrix went outside armed with a .40-caliber handgun and saw the elderly man in silhouette behind the house, the sheriff said....

"[Hendrix] gave several what he described as verbal commands," Wilson said. "[Westbrook] continued walking toward him after he told him to stop." Westbrook was slow to talk, Wilson said, because of his advanced Alzheimer's disease. Fearing for his safety, Hendrix fired four shots, the sheriff said. One bullet hit Westbrook in the chest, killing him....

No charges were filed Wednesday against Hendrix, who drove himself away from the shooting scene around 10:30 a.m. as investigators were wrapping up their evidence gathering. Hendrix and his fiancee were fully cooperative, Wilson said. "Both [their] stories matched completely," the sheriff said.

However, Wilson said that Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, whom Wilson called to the shooting scene, might bring charges after reviewing all the evidence. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation helped the sheriff's department on-scene with its investigation. "We reserve our options and rights to file charges once the investigation is complete, if we feel like Georgia law warrants charges being filed," Wilson said.

Georgia's 2006 "stand-your-ground" law that allows people to use deadly force to protect themselves "may apply to this case," Wilson said.

The dispatcher who stayed on the phone with Hendrix's fiancee wasn't aware Hendrix went outside the house with a handgun, the sheriff said. "In my personal opinion, I believe that he should have stayed inside the house," Wilson said. "Did he violate any laws by exiting the house? No."

December 1, 2013 in Notable real cases | Permalink


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This story is particularly sad and the details are truly heart-wrenching - but this instance seems different in a way that the McBride tragedy does not. I am not inherently upset with Hendrix in the way I am with Wafer as it seemed he and his fiancee took several logical steps before using force. While I am truly saddened by the result of this case, it would be frightening to have someone wandering about your property in the the very late night. However, where I am lost is why the homeowner left his home. If a man's home is his castle then why leave the safety afforded by it.

While at the point the elderly man started walking towards Hendrix it is reasonable that he felt endangered. I feel that like La Voie he somewhat recklessly created those circumstances in leaving his home. While he was not reckless is being an "initial aggressor" sense he was reckless in ignoring the risk that if he left his home he would be subject to far greater danger and the likelihood that he would have to protect himself goes way up. I would be interested in knowing how long after Hendrix shot Westbrook the police arrived.

I suppose this all hinges on what one finds to be reasonable behaviour. For some, sure the logical action when someone is one your property without permission late at night is to investigate and potentially protect, for others, the reasonable person would simply wait for police to arrive, at least for some length of time.

Overall this is just a really sad story about a mistake. Should the homeowner be charged? I'm not sure, but I'd say probably not, I don't know that he did anything legally wrong. Morally or logically perhaps, but that's not for me to say. Fear makes people do things they regret, and where the line between fear and reason should be drawn in the context of self-defense is subjective. It's safe to say Hendrix is likely being punished by his own conscience for his actions, but is he being punished enough? As we often say, It depends.

Posted by: Elizabeth Young | Dec 2, 2013 8:51:34 AM

This is a tragedy, no doubt about it. It shows the fearfulness that seems to grip people so often these days. Most people probably assume the reason someone would open your door or wander around your backyard at 4am would be malicious. From a reasonable person standard, the question is one of risk:

What if the silhouette was carrying a firearm or other weapon?
What if he intended to rape, torture, abduct, or kill your loved one?
What if there was more than one person involved?
What if the police did not get there in time

The sad thing is that in many parts of our country today, where the media hypes every gruesome killing and Hollywood horror movies portray the worst case as the usual case, it seems like the magnitude and odds of danger are high enough that many people would rather risk killing an innocent stranger and live with that guilt rather than risk under-reacting and living with the knowledge they could have done more for those they loved.

In the choice between 1) waiting calmly in the house for 10 hour-like, agonizingly fearful minutes while evil might be planning your death unseen, and 2) going out to investigate, I think the ordinary man leaves the house with his .40 caliber firearm.

Maybe the ordinary man is unreasonable. But I do not know of a man alive who has not locked the door at night and thought about what the worst might involve, and what he would do if an attacker arrived at his home. I know having lived in Cleveland, Detroit, and DC, almost every night the thought would cross my mind: how I would keep my mom and little sister safe if a true prowler were to show up, but the police were minutes away when seconds counted?

Hendrix did give time and verbal warning, which shows he was more reasonable than most home-defenders. I hope if I were in his shoes I would done better, but it is easy to imagine him doing a lot worse. This is a tragic incident where lethal self-defense was reasonably excused, if not justified. If Hendrix is charged, he is probably acquitted or takes a small plea deal.

Finally, what the heck was the deputy who stopped Westbrook doing when he stopped him and then just let him go on his way? Couldn't he tell something was up, or couldn't he have offered the old man a ride home? I would definitely want some answers about that if I were the Westbrook family. This is where the system seemed to fail most.

Posted by: Elliot Gaiser | Dec 2, 2013 11:31:15 AM

Question for ya:
In the choice between 1) waiting calmly in the house for 10 hour-like, agonizingly fearful minutes while evil might be planning your death unseen, and 2) going out to investigate, I think the ordinary man leaves the house with his .40 caliber firearm.

What do you do when you live in Detroit and it takes 58 minutes for police to respond? Does that justify bumping the .40 caliber 'ordinary man' decision to a shotgun? and does he have to leave his house or just open his door?

I like the steps that this guy took before he shot the old man. I don't like that he shot the guy but his approach does seem reasonable.

Maybe a related question: Is it too much for gun owners to know the laws of their states? can we and should we require them to know.

Ohio wants give you a concealed carry license after 4 hours of training. After 4 months of criminal law I maybe-kinda-sorta understand all the intricacies of "self-defense". but If i bomb the final at least I'll live to tell about it. (probably)

Posted by: Christopher Sponseller | Dec 2, 2013 1:17:18 PM

I think the scenario in Detroit is a lot more excusable than we are willing to admit. When National Geographic can make a TV show called "Urban Jungle" about the wild animals that now inhabit Detroit, I think it's probable that the reasonable person believes they are their only defense.

The McBride shooting happened near Detroit, not in it, so our feeling of outrage might be less unjustified. I still think that the home owner might be acquitted in that case on self-defense, but we shall see. The broader problem is that neighborly trust and community has rotted away to nothing and now homeowners feel like it is in their best interest to shoot rather than wait because of the high propensity to believe any stranger in the night is a potential killer who will tie you up in your own basement and do the worst to you or your loved ones.

Posted by: Elliot Gaiser | Dec 2, 2013 3:53:04 PM

According to Georgia law, a person is justified in using force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. Personally, I don't think a reasonable person would feel that an old man walking toward(I guess the old man is walking slowly) is about to cause great bodily harm or death. He is not holding an axes, anyway. Such problem should be left to jury and determined from the defendant's perspective, anyway.

I feel that this case shows the shortcoming or even cruelty of the "stand on ones ground" doctrine. Were there "duty to retreat" doctrine in Georgia, Hendrix were obligated to stay at home and there would be no tragedy. "Duty to retreat" doctrine shows equal consideration for life of the "aggressor". Man do wrong judgment at times and it is dangerous to allow them to kill somebody just because they believe they should do so.

Last but not least, it seems extremely important to keep the street lamp on at night!!!

Posted by: Di Zeng | Dec 3, 2013 10:04:17 PM

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