published Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Alzheimer's shooting case needs a second review

Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, district attorney for the Lookout Mountain (Ga.) Judicial Circuit, needs to reconsider his decision not to prosecute a man who killed an unarmed Alzheimer's patient in north Georgia.

On the last day of February, Franklin told the still-grieving family of Ronald Westbrook that he would not present evidence in the case to a grand jury. Franklin said that Joe Hendrix, 35, tried to run away from the 72-year-old Westbrook before shooting him in the backyard of Hendrix and his girlfriend.

But last week, an Atlanta reporter obtained a part of that evidence that indicates Hendrix's girlfriend, Terri Huskey, told investigators that she had tried to dissuade Hendrix from getting a gun or going outside because Westbrook was "an old man" who she thought "was confused."

Hendrix, a former police officer who in Washington state had twice been investigated there for breaking rules and using aggressive behavior, should have known better than to leave the house with what he thought was a prowler outside. He knew the girlfriend was on the phone with police and he knew she'd been told officers were five minutes away.

After midnight just before Thanksgiving, Westbrook had slipped unnoticed from the house he shared with his wife, taking his dogs with him. A few hours and miles later, he told a passing Walker County sheriff's deputy he was close to home. Then he knocked on the couple's door, rattled the knob and rang the bell. Eventually, he walked to the back of the house.

About 12 minutes later, Hendrix, an Army veteran, walked outside with a handgun. He asked Westbrook to identify himself, but Westbrook did not respond. He rarely talked any more because of his condition, his wife later said.

In the dark, Westbrook stepped toward Hendrix. Then, according to Franklin's news release, Hendrix ran to the front of the house before firing at least three shots. One of them pierced Westbrook's chest, killing him.

Hendrix told investigators he acted in self-defense, and on Friday the district attorney said he did not have enough evidence to prove otherwise. Hendrix never wavered in his self-defense claim, Franklin said, and the physical evidence did not contradict his statements.

In Georgia, it is legally justifiable to kill someone on your property in self-defense if you are acting reasonably. But the definition of "reasonable" is open for debate. Was it reasonable for Hendrix to walk out of his home with a gun while deputies were on their way? Would a reasonable person walk out of their house to pursue someone they felt they should fear?

The girlfriend, who is no longer Hendrix's girlfriend, didn't think it was reasonable.

"... He was going to get his gun and I said Joe he's like a, he's, he's like a 70-year-old man. You know, I didn't think it was a big, that big of a deal for ... You know for him to bring out a gun," she told an investigator.

She also told the investigator: "... I thought he should've stayed where he was, the police were five minutes away and we had already waited 10 minutes and why, why, why it was such an urgency the last five minutes. I just, I'm still furious with him. Why he didn't he just wait."

Even Franklin, the prosecutor, has acknowledged that he himself would not have gone outside. He told a reporter he would have waited for police. But apparently Franklin doesn't think taking this case to a grand jury is reasonable.

Alzheimer's disease kills one in three seniors in America, with or without bullets. The disease that eats away at memory is expected to triple in prevalence by 2050, so as time goes there will be lots of confused old men and women wandering among a trigger-happy public.

In coping with Alzheimer's, Westbrook's family already knew that life isn't fair. But they had every reason to expect the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney to be. Yet Franklin didn't ask a grand jury to look at the case.

This case deserves a grand jury review -- not just the review of a prosecutor who declines to prosecute.

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