In a case that could renew the debate over stand-your-ground laws, authorities in northwest Georgia say one man shot and killed another after the shooter felt threatened by a 72-year-old who turned out to be a wandering Alzheimer's patient.
Walker County authorities told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the victim, Ronald Westbrook, walked about three miles in the sub-freezing temperatures before knocking on Joe Hendrix's door just before 4 a.m. Wednesday.
Hendrix's fiancee didn't answer, instead calling police. But before deputies arrived, Sheriff Steve Wilson said, Hendrix went into the back yard with his handgun, where he saw Westbrook in silhouette.
Wilson said Hendrix, 34, recalled giving Westbrook several verbal commands, but the advanced Alzheimer's patient — who was wearing a light jacket and a straw hat with temperatures in the low 20s — didn't respond. Hendrix then fired four shots, the fatal bullet hitting entering Westbrook's chest.
No charges were filed, but Wilson said local prosecutors could pursue a criminal case once they review evidence.
"We reserve our options and rights to file charges once the investigation is complete, if we feel like Georgia law warrants charges being filed," Wilson told the newspaper.
Westbrook's family declined to comment.
Wilson said he believes Hendrix should have stayed inside the house, but added that the shooter didn't violate any laws by walking out into his own yard.
Georgia's self-defense law generally allows a person to use force when they have reason to believe they are under a physical threat. The law does not necessarily require a person to retreat from a perceived threat even if backing down is possible. That's a distinction from traditional self-defense laws that gave homeowners wide latitude to defend themselves inside their residences, while typically requiring someone in any other location to seek ways to back down without resorting to violent action.
"Mr. Hendrix is clearly saddened and heartbroken," the sheriff said. "Mr. Hendrix has to live with his actions for the rest of his life."
Wilson said a sheriff's deputy had stopped Westbrook earlier in the night standing at a mailbox on nearby Marble Top Road, where Westbrook once lived. Westbrook told the deputy he was getting his mail.
When officers reached Westbrook on Hendrix's property, the slain man was clutching the envelopes he'd taken from his old neighborhood.