'Stand your ground' hits close to home

by Sarah Fay Campbell

The parents of Chris Johnson, who was shot and killed at the Corner Tavern in Newnan by a man who had been hassling his girlfriend, are among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit over Georgia's "stand your ground" law.

Carrie and James Johnson are the parents of James Christopher "Chris" Johnson III, who was killed March 31, 2012, at the local restaurant and bar. The man who killed him, Adam Lee Edmondson, claimed self-defense and invoked the stand your ground law — even though Edmondson had been the initial aggressor in two altercations with Johnson, one occurring the night before his death. Edmondson was admittedly drunk, and after spending time at the tavern, went to his truck to retrieve his pistol.

He said during his trial that “I got my gun in hopes that if anything happened, instead of getting beat up, I could pull the gun and that would end it.”

Edmondson was acquitted of Johnson's murder in Coweta Superior Court.

The federal suit was filed last week. Other plaintiffs are the Rainbow PUSH Coalition — a social change organization founded by Jesse Jackson — and Herman Smith. The suit seeks class action status.

The defendants are Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens.

Smith, 21, was convicted of felony murder on Aug. 6. Smith shot and killed Cardarius Steagall, of Franklin, at a bar in Bowdon. Smith claimed self-defense and invoked the stand your ground act, but was convicted.

Smith's attorney, public defender Harry Daniels, told the Heard Citizen newspaper he felt "the evidence we presented in the case showed a clear case of self-defense."

“I commend the jury of the citizens of Carroll County. They heard the facts and did the best job they could do, but I think they got it wrong," Daniels said.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 4, claims that the law is unconstitutionally vague and is unevenly applied. The suit states that the stand your ground law, passed into law as Senate Bill 396, "has and will subject Georgians to uneven and arbitrary application of the law."

The law is vague, in part because it "does not define what actions, circumstances or conditions would constitute a 'reasonable' fear needed to trigger the use of deadly force."

The suit also finds fault with the use of the phrase "reasonably believes" in the self-defense statutes, which say a defendant is only justified if he "reasonably believes" the force used is necessary. Deadly force is only justified when someone "reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury … or the commission of a forcible felony."

It further states that SB 396 "constitutes a sweeping and comprehensive state scheme expanding the ability of individuals to use deadly force based upon minimal or no provocation" and that "by eliminating the duty to retreat and using the 'reasonable belief' standard, Georgia has created a perfect storm for arbitrary killings with no recourse and a lack of faith in the law within the people of Georgia."

Just a few days after the suit was filed, gun rights organization GeorgiaCarry.Org filed a motion to intervene in the case, a motion to dismiss, and a brief in support of the motion to dismiss.

The attorney for GeorgiaCarry, John Monroe, is a former Coweta resident.

In the brief supporting the motion to dismiss, Monroe picks apart the suit's claims, while also claiming the plaintiffs "utterly lack any semblance of standing to bring their case" and that the court has no jurisdiction. And even if there is standing, the plaintiffs don't state a case for which relief can be granted.

Smith lacks standing because the defendants, the state, had nothing to do with his conviction, and he can appeal his conviction or file for a writ of habeas corpus, Monroe claims.

There is nothing the court could do to overturn the acquittal of Edmondson in the death of Johnson, even if the statute were overturned, Monroe claims. Additionally, Johnson's family could bring a wrongful death suit against Edmondson.

If the "stand your ground" statute was overturned, "nothing in Georgia law would change," Monroe says in the brief. "The Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that there is no duty to retreat in Georgia."

And the stand your ground law "clearly references using force as described in existing law, not creating a new standard of level of force that can be used," Monroe claims.

The suit includes repeated arguments about the state law removing the "duty to retreat" and changing the "core doctrine of self-defense as a defense of last resort."

However, the actual "stand your ground" statue is short. The statute, 16-3-23.1, doesn't lay out the ways in which people in Georgia can use force. Those guidelines are in other statues, which have been around much longer. The law for personal self-defense, for example, was last changed in 2001, but dates back to 1833.

The stand your ground law states that a person who uses force in accordance with three statutes — those regulating personal defense, defense of "habitation" (which includes home but also vehicle), and defense of property of others — has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use force as provided in said code sections, including deadly force."

As for the claims that "reasonably believes" is vague, Monroe calls the plaintiffs’ argument "novel and ultimately unworkable."

That phrase has been part of the Georgia Code since at least 1968, and the “reasonable man” standard has been in use for over 170 years, Monroe adds.

Additionally, the arguments in the suit focus on possibly incorrect application of the statute, not problems with the statute itself. "At best, plaintiffs make out cases for 'as applied' challenges," he said.

Another argument that Monroe refutes is that the law creates "second class citizens" because people are only immune to prosecution if they were lawfully possessing and/or carrying a weapon when they used it.

Though a person isn't immune from prosecution if the gun is unlawfully carried, the defendant can still argue self-defense in court, Monroe said.

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