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Columbus jury reaches verdict in birthday party shootout trial involving half-brothers

A Columbus jury found Roger Thomas not guilty of murder Monday in the 2015 fatal shooting of his half-brother during a birthday party at Thomas’ 435 Bernard Drive apartment.

Thomas also was acquitted of all other charges, including aggravated assault and using a firearm to commit a felony.

Defense attorney Stacey Jackson said he felt the verdict validated a “textbook case for self defense,” and his client’s testimony was paramount.

“The crux of the whole case was really him and whether or not the jury believed ... by the evidence, which would include his testimony, that he was really in fear of receiving a serious bodily injury, or potentially death, when he fired that fatal shot,” Jackson said.

“I believe that the reason he did testify so clearly and so well that it was just coming from the heart,” he added.

Jurors deliberated about nine hours over two days before announcing they had a verdict about 2:20 p.m. Monday. They started at 10:45 a.m. Friday and took a weekend break at 4:30 that afternoon, returning at 9 a.m. Monday.

The testimony

According to testimony in the two-week trial, 32-year-old Demetrius Williams was shot four times by at least two different guns the night of Dec. 4, 2015, outside the apartment where people had gathered to celebrate Thomas’ upcoming birthday.

Thomas testified he shot Williams once or twice with a .38-caliber revolver after Williams wounded a mutual friend and then fired at Thomas, the bullet passing through Thomas’ shirt and sweater, but striking no flesh.

Two of the bullets that mortally wounded Williams passed through his body and the other two lodged, an autopsy showed. Of the two authorities recovered, one was a .38-caliber and the other a 9-millimeter.

Thomas said he was standing on his front porch when he shot Williams, who was out in the front yard. He claimed someone else fired the 9-millimeter at Williams from the side of his home, and that prompted him to retreat inside his apartment, lock the front door and flee out the back. He never went back, he said.

He shot Williams after Williams shot their friend Roderick Phillips with .32-caliber revolver and then started pointing the gun at others and threatening to kill them, he said. He quickly pulled his gun and shot Williams right after Williams shot at him, he testified.

Other witnesses, however, said Thomas fired two guns. He and his guests that night had been showing off their weapons, and he was photographed holding a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol with an extended clip.

Assistant District Attorney Wesley Lambertus emphasized testimony from three women who did not see Williams with a gun.

Thomas testified Williams and Phillips that evening had been drinking and using the drug “molly,” or ecstasy, and soon became belligerent and combative, with Phillips twice instigating a confrontation with another guest.

Thomas said that prompted him to order everyone to leave as he went inside his apartment to get ready to go to a nightclub. He was getting dressed when a guest knocked on his door to ask what was wrong with Williams. He looked out and saw Williams and Phillips fighting on his front porch, with Phillips on the floor on his back, and Williams on top of him, holding the .32-caliber revolver.

After witness Jeffrey Flakes broke up the fight, Phillips ran inside to the bathroom as Williams fired a shot at him, Thomas said. Williams then pointed the gun at others and threatened to shoot them, he said.

Flakes took Williams outside to a waiting car, and Thomas kept Phillips in the apartment, at one point taking a gun away from him when he tried to go back out to confront Williams, Thomas said.

When he stepped back outside, he saw Williams was sitting in the back seat of the car, but had not left. Then Phillips walked out of the apartment toward the car, raising his arms and saying, “It’s all love, bro,” Thomas said.

Williams got out of the car and approached Phillips, again threatening to shoot him, Thomas said. Phillips turned back toward the apartment, repeating he had no weapon, and Phillips shot him in the leg, the defendant said.

As Phillips ran to a neighboring apartment, Thomas asked Williams why he shot Phillips, and Williams again started pointing the .32-caliber at Thomas and other guests and threatening them, Thomas said, adding he could hear the revolver clicking as Williams pulled the trigger before it fired a bullet at Thomas.

Phillips, meanwhile, went inside the neighbor’s apartment, where he attacked the man living there as the man tried to force him to leave. Police arrested him outside when he burst out and fought until they Tased him, officers said.

Phillips also was charged with murder in Williams’ death, but later pleaded guilty only to assaulting the neighbor and obstructing police, and testified during the trial. He’s to be sentenced later.

Phillips’ testimony matched much of what Thomas told the court. Like Thomas, he also said Williams wildly was pointing and firing his handgun, and was so enraged that no one could calm him down.

‘Stand your ground’

Jackson recounted that testimony in his closing argument Thursday, saying it corroborated Thomas’ version of events, and proved Thomas shot Williams in self-defense.

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Because of that self-defense claim, jurors had to decide whether Georgia’s “stand your ground” law applied in Thomas’ case.

Georgia passed the law in 2006. It reads in part, “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.”

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The law further states a person in those circumstances “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use force … including deadly force.”

But the law does not authorize the use of deadly force for revenge, once an initial confrontation has ended, nor in any circumstance in which the threat is not “imminent,” Lambertus noted. He told jurors Thomas may have shot Williams in retaliation for Williams shooting into Thomas’ apartment.

“There’s a lot of conflict in this case,” he said Thursday, referring to witnesses’ testimony that at times contradicted what they initially told police.

“The main issue in this case,” he said, pointing at Thomas, “is did this defendant act in self-defense.”

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.