Roger Thomas shot his half-brother Demetrius Williams in self-defense during a gunfight outside a Bernard Drive party in 2015, his defense attorney told jurors Monday while invoking Georgia’s “stand your ground” law.
“In this state, you have the right to defend yourself and use deadly force if someone is committing a forcible felony against you,” attorney Stacey Jackson said during his opening statement in Thomas’ murder trial. Thomas under Georgia law had “no duty to retreat” once Williams shot at him, Jackson said.
Thomas is on trial for murder and aggravated assault in the Dec. 4, 2015, fatal shooting of Williams, 32, of Phenix City, who died from being shot four times by at least two different guns outside 435 Bernard Drive.
Prosecutor Wesley Lambertus said two bullets passed through Williams’ body and two others lodged. One of the bullets recovered was a .38-caliber and the other a 9 millimeter.
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The gunfire erupted around 11 p.m. during a birthday party for Roderick Phillips, who also was charged in the shooting. He since has pleaded guilty to felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor obstructing police, and agreed to testify, leaving only Thomas on trial.
Jackson gave this account of what happened that night:
People gathered for the cookout were drinking and smoking marijuana before Williams and Phillips left to buy “molly,” the synthetic drug also called ecstasy.
When they returned, Williams began “spazzing out” or behaving erratically, Jackson said: He pulled out a gun and started pointing it at the other guests, threatening to shoot them.
That angered Phillips, who confronted Williams, sparking a fight that Phillips was winning before a witness restrained him, ending the brawl. Thomas ordered Williams to leave.
Three women came to get Williams, who was halfway in a car about to leave when Phillips came out of the Bernard Drive apartment. Seeing Phillips, Williams resumed his threats, Jackson said.
When Phillips approached Williams, lifting his shirt to show he had no gun in his waistband, Williams started shooting a .32-caliber handgun, wounding Phillips and firing at people on the apartment’s porch, where a bullet went through Thomas’ jacket but didn’t hit him, Jackson said.
Once he was fired upon and nearly hit, Thomas had the right to act in his own self-defense, the attorney said: “The evidence will be that Roger Thomas had only one choice, to defend himself and defend others, and in this state you have no duty to retreat, and the affirmative defense of self-defense…. Unfortunately, Mr. Thomas had to protect himself from his own brother.”
The gun Thomas fired was a .380-caliber, Jackson said.
The first witness Tuesday was Officer Chris Hazelip, who recalled being dispatched to the apartment at 11:17 p.m. and finding Williams on the ground outside near a fire barrel, with three distraught women in “hysterics” surrounding him. The women left before police could question them, he said.
About 10 minutes after officers arrived, a next-door neighbor came from of 433 Bernard Drive and told police Phillips had just assaulted him in the apartment. Two officers were at the apartment’s door when Phillips burst out, pushing them off the landing. Hazelip ran over to help, and they were able to arrest Phillips after Tasing him, he said.
Thomas surrendered to police around 11 p.m. the next day.
According to previous Ledger-Enquirer reports on the shooting, the 28-year-old neighbor told police Phillips had pistol-whipped him inside his apartment, and officers venturing inside found a .380-caliber pistol atop a refrigerator.
Police later said Phillips was “extremely intoxicated and appeared to be on something else” when they interviewed him Dec. 5, and he gave varying accounts of how he was shot.
Thomas’ trial continues this week in Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith III’s Government Center courtroom.
Georgia passed its “stand your ground” law in 2006. The statute 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.”
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.”
“Stand your ground” laws provoked controversy nationwide in 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted after using Florida’s statute in his defense for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012.