Iverson Gilyard was walking away from a city park on Aug. 14, 2021, when a 16-year-old pulled out a gun and shot him seven times, four in the back.
Columbus police thought this was a clear case of murder, and arrested the teen when they tracked him down six days later. On Feb. 17, a grand jury indicted the youth on charges of murder, aggravated assault and using a gun to commit a crime.
But what police considered a clear case of murder, prosecutors now view as a obvious act of self-defense.
They're asking Superior Court Judge John Martin to dismiss the charges, a move that has upset Gilyard's family and left the district attorney's office explaining its reasoning.
"I felt stripped of everything," Gilyard's mother Tiesha Gilyard told Martin during a June 10 hearing, describing her reaction to being told the DA wants to drop the case.
She and other relatives felt the circumstances warranted a murder charge. "I'm old school," one told Martin. "You shoot somebody in the back, and you're automatically guilty of murder."
But Assistant District Attorney Robin Anthony said multiple attorneys in the DA's office have reviewed the evidence, and they have consulted the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia. All agreed the next step should be filing what's called a "nolle prosequi" to dismiss the case.
So that's what Anthony did on May 26, 2022, the same day newly appointed District Attorney Stacey Jackson met with Gilyard's family to inform them of the decision.
"At that point, I felt railroaded," Gilyard's mother told Martin during the June hearing on Anthony's motion.
The attorneys and respective families are now waiting to see whether Martin will follow through on the motion, to end a murder case prosecutors say they cannot legally or ethically pursue.
Police said officers called at 7:30 p.m. to the shooting at 13th Avenue and Virginia Street found Gilyard lying wounded in the road. He was rushed to the Piedmont Columbus Regional emergency room, where a doctor pronounced the 20-year-old dead at 8 p.m.
After questioning witnesses, police Sgt. Kyle Tuggle charged the juvenile with murder. Police at the time did not identify the teen, because of his juvenile status.
Because the youth's name was never published, the Ledger-Enquirer is withholding it, as his charges now may be dismissed. Born in December 2004, he is 17 now.
He had a preliminary hearing on Aug. 23, when a judge found the evidence sufficient to send the case to Superior Court. But as prosecutors delved into the circumstances, they began to doubt that the teen had committed any crime.
According to Anthony, to Jackson and to the suspect's attorney, Jennifer Curry, Gilyard attacked the boy first, at the basketball courts at Linwood-Tillis Park, off 13th Avenue near the Marianna Gallops Senior Center.
Security cameras on a city building recorded the incident, with audio, Anthony said, and parents and children at an adjacent playground witnessed it.
Anthony said the video confirmed what witnesses told police: The boy was playing basketball with others when Gilyard came into the park yelling the teen's name.
Brandishing a handgun, Gilyard hit the boy in the head with it. The teen tried to get away, but Gilyard persisted, striking him twice more over the head, Anthony said.
Gilyard also threatened the teen, saying, "I'm going to bust you in the kidney," meaning to shoot him, Anthony said.
When parents at the playground complained, Gilyard told them, "My bad. I'm just handling my business," Anthony said. He then told the teen to follow him, and stuck the gun in the waistband of his pants, saying, "You'd better not run, either," the prosecutor said.
When Gilyard turned away, the teen pulled a pistol from his backpack and opened fire. Gilyard's family said he was shot four times in the back, and three times in the chest.
At the June 10 hearing, Gilyard's mother claimed the teen had befriended her son and visited his apartment, before going back, kicking in the door and burglarizing it. Her son was just trying to recover his stolen goods, she said.
In a interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Curry said she had never heard that story before, and no evidence supported it. "I have no reason to believe that they ever hung out, that they were ever friends," she said.
Of their confrontation, she said: "It's my understanding that the deceased had an issue with someone that my client was friends with, so words were being exchanged. But I have absolutely no reason to believe that my client was being accused by the decedent of breaking into his home or anything of that nature."
Evidence and law
Anthony said the video and the witnesses' accounts showed Gilyard was the aggressor, not the victim. By beating the boy with a gun, he committed aggravated assault, under Georgia law, she said. By using a gun to detain the boy, and to force him to follow Gilyard, Gilyard committed the crime of kidnapping, Anthony said.
Because Gilyard was kidnapping the boy, the teen was authorized by law to stand his ground and defend himself, and to use deadly force by shooting Gilyard, Anthony said: "That's what stopped the forcible felony of kidnapping."
Though the teen retreated, when Gilyard first attacked him, he by law did not have to, she said: "He had no duty to retreat."
Anthony recounted this in her written motion to drop the charges, concluding with this:
"The video was reviewed by two senior DA investigators, three senior Assistant District Attorneys, the former Acting District Attorney, and the current District Attorney. While a grand jury did indict the accused, all parties within the District Attorney's Office believe the accused reasonably acted in self-defense. As such, it would be unethical to pursue prosecution of the accused."
In court, she said the indictment was unexpected, as the acting district attorney at the time, Sheneka Terry, had advised the grand jury not to indict the case. But the grand jurors split on the matter, with 12 voting to indict and 11 against it, she said.
That left prosecutors with no choice but to seek a dismissal, once they concluded the shooting was justified, she said.
According to Georgia law, "the fact that a person's conduct is justified is a defense to prosecution for any crime based on that conduct." That statute on justifiable conduct references a subsequent code section on self-defense.
"A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other's imminent use of unlawful force," it reads in part.
It adds that "a person is justified in using force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Curry said the law and the evidence show her client's actions were justified.
"He hit him several times in the head with the butt of a firearm," she said of Gilyard. "He threatens to shoot him, and ... he tells him, 'Come with me. We're going to finish this over here.' And that's when my client knew this was a very dangerous, violent individual. He puts the gun in the back of his pants and warns him, 'You'd better not run.'"
That's a threat, she said: "That's when my client knew that he was either going to be seriously hurt or killed by this individual."
Jackson cited some of those same factors, in a separate interview. "At the time of the shooting itself, the decedent was committing a serious violent felony, several of them, as we determined: one being being that of an aggravated assault, that of a kidnapping."
Georgia law protects anyone's right to respond forcefully, in that situation, he said: "Any person has the right to use self-defense, even deadly force, to prevent a serious violent felony happening to themselves."
Curry said she could have filed a motion seeking immunity from prosecution, claiming self-defense, but that would have meant the case still was being prosecuted, which Jackson had decided his staff ethically could not do.
"Under the Georgia Bar and the American Bar Association rules, it is unethical for a prosecutor to move forward on a case if it lacks probable cause," she said. "Any justified action is a bar to prosecution, so for that reason, they could not ethically prosecute a case that they knew was legally justified."
Jackson also cited bar rules governing such cases: "Prosecutors should refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause," he said.
"If you determine it to be self-defense, then there's no criminal action," he added. "There's no probable cause, thus you cannot pursue the case."
Gilyard's mother declined to comment to the Ledger-Enquirer until Martin decides on the motion to dismiss the charges.
Curry said her client no longer is in jail, but he is in danger: He has received death threats, and his mother's home was targeted in a shooting while the boy was held in juvenile detention.
The family since has moved for their safety, she said.
"He has been on home confinement for the past few months, so he's not allowed to go to school, he's not allowed to leave his home," she said. "But after this concludes, his plan is to... leave this area permanently."