Ex-defendant in Columbus murder trial recounts being wounded before fatal shooting

Defense attorney says client shot half-brother in self-defense, cites Georgia’s ‘stand your ground’ law

Defense attorney Stacey Jackson said in his opening statement Tuesday morning he feels the evidence will show his client Roger Lee Thomas acted in self defense in the December 2015 fatal shooting of Demetrius Williams.
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Defense attorney Stacey Jackson said in his opening statement Tuesday morning he feels the evidence will show his client Roger Lee Thomas acted in self defense in the December 2015 fatal shooting of Demetrius Williams.

The former codefendant in the murder case against Roger Thomas took the witness stand Thursday to recount what happened the night Demetrius Williams was gunned down outside 435 Bernard Drive.

Like Thomas, 31, Roderick Phillips also was charged with murder in Williams’ fatal shooting, before he agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges and testify during Thomas’ trial.

He testified friends had congregated Dec. 4, 2015, on Bernard Drive in anticipation of celebrating his birthday two days later. He and Williams left to go buy some beer and some “molly,” a drug also called ecstasy.

He said they bought the drug on Andrews Road and returned to Bernard Drive, where he and Williams consumed some of it. Later, while drunk and drugged, the two got into a fight, the cause of which Phillips said he could not recall.

He said his head cleared when Williams punched him in the face, and his memory of what happened afterward was not as vague.

After Williams punched him, Phillips shoved Williams off the porch, and the two started struggling on the ground below until a witness ran over and broke up the brawl, he said.

He went inside the apartment, to the bathroom, and for the 90 minutes he was inside could hear a “commotion” outside, he said.

When he came back out, he saw Thomas standing on the front porch, and Williams getting into the backseat of a silver car parked out front. As he stepped off the porch and into the yard, Williams saw him, got out of the car and approached him with a gun at his side, he said.

Williams began threatening him, asking whether Phillips thought he was tough, he said. So Phillips raised his hands and replied, “I ain’t got no gun.” He turned to walk back to the apartment, and Williams followed, he said.

When he turned back around, Williams was only feet away. When he repeated that he had no weapon, Williams pointed the handgun and shot him in the leg, he said.

Phillips ran to a neighbor’s porch, shocked at what had happened, he said: “I was like, ‘Man, he shot me.’ It was shocking. We’ve argued before. It never went that far.”

He examined his wound while on the neighbor’s porch, where a pickup truck parked nearby blocked his view of what happened next, he said. He heard someone shout at Williams, “You shot Ro!”

“Ro” is his nickname Phillips said.

He said he heard Williams reply, “I told him to quit f—king with me! I’ll kill all y’all! For real!”

While still on the neighbor’s porch, he heard seven to 10 shots, but none came in his direction, he said. He ran inside the neighbor’s apartment when the shooting stopped.

The neighbor tried to throw him out, and the two started fighting before the police arrived.

Police said that minutes after they reached the scene, the neighbor came out and told them Phillips had assaulted him. Officers were going to investigate when Phillips burst out, knocking two officers off the porch. They wrestled him until he was Tased twice and handcuffed.

Phillips, 25, could not explain why police found three .380-caliber shell casings beside the red pickup truck that he said obscured his view.

He acknowledged owning a .380 handgun, and police found a .380 inside the neighbor’s apartment, but Phillips claimed the gun police found belonged to the neighbor. He could not recall where he left his gun, he said.

Phillips said he was in jail when he heard Williams had died. The two had known each other well, having been friends for four years, and it saddened him, he said. “He was intoxicated,” he said of Williams. “I don’t think he’d have did what he did if he was in control.”

He thought the drug they’d taken helped spark that aggression: “I’ve seen people get aggressive on it before.”

Other witnesses have disputed whether Williams had a gun that night, saying they never saw him with one.

Evidence showed four guns were at the scene. Phillips said Williams shot him with a .32-caliber. Williams was shot four times, among the bullets a .38-caliber and a 9-millimeter. Police found only one weapon, the .380-caliber in the neighboring apartment Phillips ran into.

Thomas’ defense attorney Stacey Jackson has argued Thomas shot Williams, his half-brother, in self-defense, after Williams fired a shot that passed through Thomas’ jacket but didn’t hit him.

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Jackson in his opening statement Tuesday told jurors Thomas under Georgia law had “no duty to retreat” once Williams shot at him, and was authorized to use deadly force to defend himself and others.

Williams died later from his wounds. He was 32 years old, and had been living in Phenix City.

Prosecutor Wesley Lambertus told jurors Tuesday that 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.

Phillips has pleaded guilty to felony aggravated assault and two misdemeanor counts of obstructing police. Held in the Muscogee County Jail since his arrest, he is to be sentenced after the trial.

Thomas’ trial continues Friday in Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith III’s Government Center courtroom. He is charged with murder and aggravated assault.

The Georgia code Jackson references in Thomas’ defense sometimes is called the “stand your ground” law, which Georgia passed 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.”

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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.”

“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.

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.