LAFAYETTE, Ga. — When Johnny "JJ" Montgomery hopped in his Nissan Sentra with two other men, did he threaten the life of Michael James Gobert?
That question was central to the closing arguments of both the defense and prosecution in Gobert's murder trial in Walker County Superior Court on Thursday. Gobert's attorney, David Dunn, told the jury that his client thought Montgomery was going to run him over; he fired in self-defense.
Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, meanwhile, said Dunn's argument stretches the facts of the case.
Gobert, 52, killed Montgomery, 31, one night last October, when Montgomery and two other men visited Gobert's stepdaughter. A fight broke out between the stepdaughter and one of the men, and Montgomery tried to break it up, the stepdaughter testified. Gobert said he woke up during the commotion, came outside and found the men arguing with his stepdaughter before getting in Montgomery's car.
Gobert faces charges of malice murder, felony murder, four counts of aggravated assault and five counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a crime. The jury will deliberate about whether Gobert is guilty of those charges this morning.
On Thursday, Franklin crafted his closing argument around Gobert's statements to investigators with the Walker County Sheriff's Office around 3 a.m. on Oct. 20, about four hours after he killed Montgomery. Gobert explained that he and his stepdaughter, Nicole Carroll, lived in two mobile homes on the same property.
Around 11 p.m., Gobert awoke to the argument. He grabbed his Glock 22 and ran outside. He hollered at the men to leave. One of the men, later identified as Edrius Putman, allegedly told Gobert that he was too scared to actually shoot them. Gobert fired a warning shot.
"Let's go," Montgomery told the others, Gobert recalled.
Gobert said the way they got in the car seemed aggressive to him. Then, the men began backing up the vehicle, and Gobert started firing shots. He stood about 30 feet away from the car. Montgomery drove forward, and Gobert continued to shoot. He turned sharp left, into a shed on Gobert's property. When Gobert found him, Montgomery was slumped over on the steering wheel, shot in the right side of the head.
Franklin told the jury that Montgomery had to drive forward, toward Montgomery, to get to Straight Gut Road — the exit.
"He's trying to avoid this crazy man with the gun," Franklin said. "Johnny Montgomery is fearing for his life. This man right here (Gobert) had no reason to be in fear for his life. No reason!"
During his own closing argument, Dunn asked the jury to put themselves in Gobert's position. He awoke at 11 p.m., hearing some men yelling at his stepdaughter. When he came outside, he told the men to leave. Putman supposedly called him a coward and "vile" names, Dunn told the jury.
When Montgomery got in his car, Dunn said, he backed it up and shined his headlights in Gobert's face. The engine was "gunning." The car looked like it was going to run over Gobert.
There, in the dark, Dunn said, Gobert believed he was in danger. And, he told the jury, no actual assault has to happen. The mere threat — if it is reasonable — is a strong enough reason to open fire in self-defense.
"I don't have to turn and run and cower in fear," Dunn told the jury. "I can stand my ground."
While the lawyers argued about the proper way to interpret Gobert's behavior and state law and what this case means for everyone's rights in Walker County, the victim's mother sat quietly with other family members and friends. As Franklin told the jurors not to forget her son as they weighed the evidence, Anna Ruth Montgomery drew her glasses away from her nose.
She pressed a tissue against her eyes. Then, she balled her hand and raised it to her face. She pushed the fist against her mouth three times, gently. She raised her hand higher, resting it on her forehead. The whole time, as she listened to arguments about legal code sections and the legislature's intention of various laws, she stared at the floor.
Dunn challenges Franklin's closing statement: During Franklin's argument, Dunn raised a standing objection to one particular statement. Franklin told the jury that he couldn't have called Putman to the stand.
In fact, he could have. But Franklin believed Putman would have merely pleaded the fifth for every pertinent question given that the state is also in the process of prosecuting Putman for his actions that night. He faces a charge of simple battery for allegedly throwing a metal dehumidifier at Carroll's face in the midst of his argument with her, which in part prompted Gobert to come outside.
Franklin said that two weeks ago Putman told him he would not testify in Gobert's murder trial, on the advice of his attorney. Dunn said that is not a strong enough reason for Franklin to tell the jury that he didn't have the ability to call Putman to the stand.
"He just made an absolutely false statement," Dunn said.
Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. overruled Dunn's motion for a mistrial.
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.