Jury returns verdict in Columbus killing that started with fight over cigarettes
Not guilty on all counts.
That was the jury’s verdict Wednesday in the Columbus murder trial of Eddie Clayton, who claimed self-defense in the 2017 fatal shooting of Robert Lockhart.
The jury deliberated about three hours before reaching a verdict at 2:37 p.m.
“He’ll be released,” defense attorney Mark Shelnutt later said of Clayton, who was held in jail 15 months awaiting trial.
“He’s never going to get that back, obviously,” Shelnutt said of Clayton’s jail time. Clayton’s defense team earlier persuaded a judge to set a bond for Clayton, but he didn’t have the funds to pay it. “When you’re talking about bonds in excess of $100,000, people just don’t have that kind of money laying around.”
In claiming self-defense, Clayton maintained he had to shoot Robert Lockhart four times during a fight that started over cigarettes during a July 22, 2017 party at Clayton’s home on Grant Road.
The evidence showed Lockhart attacked Clayton first, hitting him in the back of the head and struggling with him in the kitchen before other guests broke up the fight. That’s when Clayton went to his bedroom to get a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol, and returned to the kitchen to confront Lockhart, witnesses said.
Clayton claimed Lockhart immediately attacked him a second time, so he shot Lockhart in the leg as Lockhart charged at him, and had to keep shooting the much larger man to stop the assault. When Lockhart stopped fighting, Clayton stopped shooting, leaving six bullets in the gun that held 13.
“He only used the force necessary to get the attacker off of him, so to us, it was a real clear case,” Shelnutt said Wednesday evening.
Clayton’s injuries from Lockhart’s assault were evident in photographs taken afterward, the attorney said. “He was hurt. He had a burst eardrum. He had a cut over his eye. You could clearly see from his mugshot that he was hurt…. He suffered great bodily injury.”
Clayton that night was hosting a birthday party for girlfriend Ardella McKinley’s brother, Mario McKinley. They are siblings to Lyzenzia Lockhart, Robert Lockhart’s wife, and all were at Clayton’s home, along with a third man who lived with Clayton, and three children.
Around midnight, the men went to a nearby store to buy alcohol and other supplies. Clayton and Lockhart chipped in together on a pack of cigarettes, and Lockhart gave some to a woman he saw at the store. Clayton criticized him for that, and the ensuing argument is what led Lockhart to assault him later.
The jury found Clayton not guilty on these charges:
- Malice or intentional murder
- Felony murder for killing Lockhart while committing felony aggravated assault
- Aggravated assault
- Using a gun to commit a felony
He claimed self-defense under what’s commonly called Georgia’s “stand your ground” law, which states 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’s exceptions say the person claiming self-defense can’t be the instigator of the violence, or be committing a felony, or be engaged in mutual combat, unless he or she withdraws from the fight and effectively communicates that.
“I think the case from start to finish was a very clear-cut case of self-defense,” Shelnutt said. “I mean, here’s a person who never had a history of any kind of violence. He’s got a weapon in his home … for protection, and the only reason he got it out was he was being attacked, literally beaten in his home.”