Late one night in June 2020, William Marcus Wilson, a 21-year-old Black man, fired his legal handgun at a pickup truck full of teenagers after some of the teens allegedly called him a racial slur and tried to run him and his white girlfriend off the road in Statesboro, Georgia. The next day, Wilson learned that one of those bullets struck and killed 17-year-old Haley Hutcheson, who was in the backseat of the truck.
This week, Wilson, who goes by the name Marc, is on trial for felony murder and aggravated assault, which carries a life sentence and the possibility of the death penalty. Wilson and his legal team are arguing that despite the tragic events, Wilson was left with no option but to stand his ground to ensure his safety, as well as that of his girlfriend.
“Me and my girlfriend were very scared that night,” Wilson told a detective after the shooting. “A truck full of—all I saw were white males—white males driving their car at me and are flipping me off and yelling racial slurs.”
Self-defense claims led to acquittals for Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse and George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin. But this is a rare case of a Black man using a stand your ground defense, and the historical data does not point in his favor.
“Wilson’s trial is a particularly interesting case because it’s a dynamic of a self-defense case that we haven't seen,” Melissa Redmon, the prosecutorial justice program director at the University of Georgia’s School of Law and a former Fulton County district attorney, told VICE News. “It's something that should be watched closely to make sure that Marcus Wilson is afforded the same consideration and support that other [defendants] who have alleged self-defense have gotten.”
Fearing for his life
At around 1 a.m. on June 14, 2020, Wilson and his then-girlfriend Emma Rigdon, who is white, were driving away from a Taco Bell in Statesboro. At a stoplight, they pulled up next to a pickup truck. According to Wilson’s defense team, Wilson said two male teens in the truck leaned out of the window and called Rigdon a “n----- -loving bitch,” and shouted, “Your lives don’t matter!”
Wilson later told police that when the light turned green, the pickup truck swerved in front of them and tried to knock his car off the road. Wilson said the males in the truck were leaning out the window screaming more racial slurs while flashing middle fingers at them.
It was just weeks after the murder of George Floyd, and Wilson said he was already feeling nervous, so he pulled out a gun and fired two warning shots at the truck.
He said he heard a loud sound that made him think they might be shooting back at him or ramming his vehicle.
Fearing for his life, Wilson said he fired his gun once more at the truck. That bullet struck and killed Hutcheson.
When Wilson found out the next day that one of the passengers of the truck had been killed, he turned himself in. He was denied bail after Ogeechee Circuit Superior Court Judge Michael Muldrew, who originally presided over the case, said Wilson posed a “significant threat to the persons in the community,” despite having no criminal record.
In February, Muldrew was recused from presiding over the trial; the defense claimed he met with two of the prosecuting attorneys in private and allowed them to view emails Wilson sent to his family. Muldrew was replaced with Judge Ronnie Thompson, who granted Wilson his release on a $100,000 bond.
However, Thompson ruled that Wilson’s case was not airtight enough to grant him immunity from the charges under Georgia’s stand your ground laws.
And the teens tell a different story, one that says Wilson never had a claim to self-defense and that they did not yell out racial slurs. They told police they thought Rigdon was a classmate they’d seen earlier that night who also has a Black boyfriend. In opening statements, Chief Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black said that no matter what happened before the shooting, Wilson was wrong to escalate the encounter by using deadly force, and his decision to do so resulted in the death of an innocent person.
“As we proceed through that evidence… one thing is going to ring true through this whole trial,” Black said Wednesday, according to the Statesboro Herald. “That is no matter what gets thrown around this courtroom, no matter what fingers get pointed at anybody, Haley Hutcheson didn’t do a doggone thing to anybody, except get a bullet in the back of her head.”
Since the incident, the teens’ memories of that night have been called into question. All four admitted to drinking alcohol as they drove around town. In their investigation, police found beer cans at the scene that match the brand they were drinking, with investigators believing that the loud noise Wilson heard was likely a can that was thrown at his car. And at least one of the police reports written by a Statesboro detective reads that one of the teens, Luke Conley, was seen by a witness yelling out of his window right before the shooting.
Additionally, Conley is currently facing charges of obstruction of justice for withholding information and providing conflicting statements about who he saw in Wilson’s car. A month prior to the shooting, Conley was also arrested on charges of driving under the influence and a hit-and-run. Neither case has been litigated, according to Georgia court records.
The defense, led by former Georgia NAACP president and attorney Francys Johnson, argues that despite the tragic death of Hutcheson, Wilson responded reasonably.
“This case is about how Emma Rigdon and William Marcus Wilson missed their early graves when they decided to go on a late-night run to Taco Bell,” Johnson said during his opening statement Wednesday.
Since Johnson took on the case in July 2020, he’s been blunt about his belief that race has played a major role in how this case has been perceived.
“We believe that if Marc Wilson was a white gentlemen that night, accosted by a truckload of angry, belligerent, possibly drunk Black men, and he used a legally possessed firearm to defend himself and his passenger, that he would have been given a medal and not given a prosecution,” he told reporters during a Zoom call at the time, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Data backs Johnson’s belief. Stand your ground laws, which give legal gun owners the legal grounds to use deadly force when threatened regardless if there are non-lethal options available, exist in some form across 37 states, according to the Giffords Center, including in Georgia.
But from 2005 to 2010, the first five years after stand your ground laws were introduced, just 11 percent of cases involving a Black shooter invoking stand your ground and white victim were deemed justified, according to a 2020 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, compared to 45 percent of cases involving a Black victim and a white shooter.
One of the most famous cases of stand your ground being used successfully was in 2013, when George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old who was walking home through Zimmerman’s neighborhood, was acquitted. Zimmerman successfully claimed he felt threatened by Martin, despite initiating the interaction by following him through the neighborhood.
And just two months after Hucheson’s death, in August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, 18, shot and killed two people and injured a third during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was found not guilty on all charges including intentional homicide. The white teen successfully claimed self-defense, arguing that he had little choice but to use deadly force when confronted by protesters both at a car dealership he says he was trying to protect, and people who tried to disarm him after the initial shooting.
But that trend may be changing. Last November, Greg and Travis McMichael failed to convince a Georgia jury that they acted in self-defense when they shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black 25-year-old jogger who they suspected was a burglar in their neighborhood. They were both sentenced to life in prison.
Redmon said that the impact the Arbery case had about who can claim self-defense is very likely to loom over the jury in this case, in a way that will possibly benefit Wilson.
“The McMichaels prevented Arbery from disengaging. Here, you have the exact opposite: a couple going about their business and the victims initiating the contact and being antagonistic towards them,” Redmon said. “When we think about self-defense, we typically think about someone coming at you and you having to defend yourself as opposed to you initiating an encounter and it [going] wrong.”
But it doesn’t mean that there won’t be hurdles to overcome for the defense.
“When someone is deceased, most citizens are going to look to what could have been done to prevent this. That's the difficulty in getting them to accept a self-defense defense in most cases,” Redmon said. “In this case, you have the deceased victim who in a sense was an innocent bystander in that she wasn't driving the truck.”
Ultimately, it will come down to which version of events the jury will ultimately believe.
“The state is going to focus on the reasonableness and whether or not that fear and his subsequent actions were reasonable,” Redmon said. “The other thing is the credibility and which version of events is most likely to be true. Both sides will have to convince the jury which version of events actually happened.”
The jury selected to decide the case is made up of eight white males, four white females, two Black females, and one Hispanic male. The jurors range in age from 20 to 70. The trial is expected to last through to the beginning of next week.
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