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Jury reaches verdict in police shooting trial

After deliberating all day, the jury reached a verdict Saturday evening, Oct. 5, in the criminal trial of former Kingsland police officer Zechariah Presley for a fatal on-duty shooting.

The jury found Presley guilty of violating his oath of office, which is a felony, and not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. His attorney plans to appeal the conviction.

Presley was taken into custody and will remain in jail until sentencing on Oct. 18. He faces one to five years. 

While on duty in June 2018, Presley attempted to make a traffic stop on 33-year-old Tony Green, who was black. Green’s car ran off the road and he and another man fled. Presley chased Green, then shot him after a brief physical altercation. 

The jury began deliberating late Thursday after three days of testimony and evidence. Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett questioned Juror No. 15 — the forewoman and the only black juror — alone on Friday morning, asking if she knew either family. When she said no, he asked specifically about someone with the last name Green. The juror said she knew that person but hadn’t seen her in about three years.

Juror No. 15 then resigned Saturday morning, citing health concerns. An alternate took her place and the deliberations started over.

Presley testifies

Testifying for two hours, Presley said he saw Green at a gas station while he was on patrol, knew he’d had a suspended license a few months ago and noticed that Green seemed “off and nervous.” Green drove away doing 53 to 55 mph in a 35-mph zone, and Presley followed, trying to see the tag number to call it into dispatch before making a traffic stop, he said.

Green ran off the road at a 90-degree turn and he and another man got out the car.

“I started to panic at that point. I didn’t know if they had weapons they were jumping out with,” Presley said, citing training videos that show officers being fired at in similar situations.

Green ran back to the car, grabbed a “small, dark object” that Presley said he believed could be a weapon, then ran away again. As Green ran, his hands were at his waistband, which several officers, including Presley, testified is concerning because most firearms are found in waistbands.

During the chase, Presley tried to tase Green and called for back up. They ran for a few blocks, which seemed like a long time, he said.

“I was exhausted,” he said. “There’s a difference between a slow jog and a full out sprint in your full duty gear.”

Green fell on his hands and knees, then fought back when Presley tried to push him flat to handcuff him, according to Presley. Green flipped Presley somehow and Presley hit his head, shoulder and back, he said.

“He attacked me. I don’t know how he did it ... but it was fast and violent,” Presley said.

Presley described that he ended up in a vulnerable position on his back, pepper spray beneath him, gun on his duty belt, Taser in his right hand and Green on top of him. 

“I was scared. I was helpless. I was starting to think about my two boys and if I was going to make it home to them,” Presley said.

Presley and other officers — including state and defense expert witnesses — testified that pepper spray wasn’t an option because the men were so close. Presley tased himself in the arm, then felt Green grabbing at his Taser and tried to roll on his side to put his gun between his body and the pavement, Presley said.

“That’s when panic really set in. I’m thinking I’ve got to get this guy off me,” he said. “... (I thought) that he was going to get my firearm and use it on me.”

They struggled for eight seconds, then Green ran back the way they’d come where Presley couldn’t see him. Presley drew his gun, turned around and saw Green facing him with his arm raised, he said. 

“I thought he was going to shoot me,” Presley said. “... I fired until the threat was no longer there. … (Afterward), I was in shock, fear, somewhat of relief because he was no longer pointing anything at me.”

Presley found his radio in a ditch and called for help. As more officers responded, Presley laid down in the road and they checked him for wounds because he wasn’t sure if he’d been hit.

“I was a wreck,” Presley said. “... I was worried about myself. I was worried about him. … Nobody wants to have to do that. Nobody wants to have to go through that.”

On cross-examination, prosecutor Rocky Bridges asked Presley if he had told anyone on the scene that he thought Green had a weapon and if he’d noticed the object in Green’s hand while they were fighting or seen the phone light up. Presley said he noticed something in Green’s hand and perceived it to be a weapon.

“There’s an awful lot you don’t know that doesn’t fit your narrative, right?” Bridges said.

“It doesn’t fit your narrative,” Presley responded.

But the truth is that Green didn’t have a weapon, wasn’t wanted for a violent crime and he was running away, Bridges said. And why chase Green with a Taser if you think he grabbed a weapon, Bridges asked. Presley said he tried to give Green the benefit of the doubt until after he used the Taser and they fought. Bridges also asked if Presley had told Green to drop the weapon.

“No, I’m not going to wait until someone shoots at me to give them commands,” Presley said. 

Through questions, Bridges countered that Presley hadn’t been in shock when he’d recounted other details but he was in shock when he didn’t tell the 10 to 15 officers on the scene about the perceived weapon.

So this part is fragmented but “you have a story for the jury that you want them to believe,” Bridges said.

Later in expert testimony, witnesses for the state and defense both said people in high stress situations remember a fraction of what happened in the first 48 hours and may remember more later but may never recover every detail.

Expert witnesses

In the last day of testimony, both sides called expert witnesses to talk about the use of force and if Presley’s actions were reasonable and justified.

In qualifying as an expert for the defense, former police officer Ron Martinelli said he had been involved in shootings himself as an officer, had testified for both sides in officer-involved shootings and had recently helped convict three police officers.

“I believe Officer Presley’s actions from beginning to end are justified,” Martinelli said.

The state’s rebuttal witness, Glyn Corbitt, a former police officer and longtime law enforcement instructor for the state, said Presley’s use of force wasn’t reasonable. Neither side asked Corbitt to explain his opinion.

On cross-examination, Corbitt said there wasn’t anything in Martinelli’s report that he significantly disagreed with. Defense attorney Adrienne Browning laid out the situation Presley faced and asked Corbitt what he would do.

“I would use deadly force,” Corbitt said.

On redirect by the prosecution, Corbitt said that he would be concerned about someone running back to a car and would have pulled his gun, not a Taser.

Closing arguments

The state elected to go last in closing arguments, putting Browning in front of the jury first. 

Browning talked about how dark it was, how little time Presley had to decide and that he was scared and distraught, not angry.

“Circumstances forced Zech Presley to make that decision in a fraction of a second,” she said. “… ‘I thought he was going to kill me. Am I OK? Is he OK?’”

In their testimony, Corbitt and the GBI case agent had hypothetically agreed that they would have fired too, she said. It didn’t matter what was in Green’s hand but what Presley thought it was and the red flags he perceived, she said. 

“Tony Green was shot because of bad decision after bad decision after bad decision until the threat was so overwhelming and Zech feared for his life,” she said. “... If Tony Green had done one thing right that night, this office would be prosecuting him.”

In his closing, Bridges agreed that Green had made bad decisions but Presley had decided to pull the trigger and “made a series of mistakes.”

“You don’t have to like Tony Green. You don’t have to think that he acted right,” Bridges said.

Bridges again questioned why Presley pulled his Taser if he thought Green had a weapon. He never believed there was a gun, that’s why, Bridges said.

“He had no reason to believe that Tony Green was armed,” he said.

Bridges asked the jury to weigh what Presley said right after the shooting — that Green was running away and he fired — against his statement 472 days later that “matches the evidence and the law.”

“Yes, he was fearful, absolutely, but he panicked and decided to pull the trigger,” Bridges said. “… It’s not reasonable to shoot someone running away.”

The verdict

Before the jury came in, Judge Scarlett warned the family, friends and citizens gathered that he would go into contempt proceedings immediately if anyone caused a disruption. As the clerk read the verdict, it was quiet save for faint sobbing.

At the prosecution’s request, Presley was remanded into custody until his sentencing on Oct. 18. He faces one to five years. Browning plans to appeal the conviction and will likely address it at sentencing, she told the Tribune & Georgian.

Malik Shabazz, an attorney in a civil suit over Green’s death, released a statement Saturday night on behalf of the Black Lawyers for Justice. Shabazz called for Presley to receive the maximum sentence and be re-tried for murder. (A grand jury considered but didn’t indict Presley for murder last year.)

“We completely denounce the not guilty verdict in manslaughter charges,” Shabazz said. “… This was a complete travesty of justice by a jury biased in favor of Presley, who is white. There was not a single African American on the jury. The weight of the evidence does not support the verdict. There was absolutely no credible evidence presented that Zechariah Presley acted in self-defense, particularly the body cam video.”

As Presley headed to jail Saturday, many of the 30 to 40 people who had gathered on the prosecution’s side for days, began to protest outside, carrying signs and yelling chants, saying the fight wasn’t over yet.

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