William “Mark” Wilson, who was recently convicted of manslaughter for a shooting he said was in self-defense against a racist attack on a Georgia highway, was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison — the longest allowed by state law. His family and lawyers say the case exposes a double standard of racial “stand on your floor” laws.
“If you put me in Mark’s shoes, there would be no chance of me going to court,” Wilson’s cousin Chance Bridgen, who is white, told Yahoo News. “Odds are I would have gotten a medal—I might have had a parade in my name. It’s unreal how he was treated just because he tanned a little bit more than me.”
Wilson, a biracial black man who was 21 at the time of the shooting on June 14, 2020, fired his legal handgun at a pickup truck of white teens who he said were shouting racial insults at him and trying to run with him and his white. Girlfriend is out of the way near Statesboro, Ga. One of those bullets hit and killed 17-year-old Haley Hutchison, who was in the back seat of the truck.
After an emotional seven-day trial late last month in Bullock County Superior Court, a jury found Wilson guilty of manslaughter. Wilson was acquitted of other charges, including felony murder, which carries with it a possible life sentence.
When the sentencing began on Tuesday, Wilson’s defense was hoping for an indulgence from Judge Ronnie Thompson knowing that in Georgia, premeditated murder is punishable by one to 10 years. However, the prosecution pressed for the maximum punishment for “Wilson’s lack of reprimand, contempt, and attempts to tamper with the system,” according to James WoodallPublic Policy Coordinator with the Southern Center for Human Rights, who tweeted live for the hearing.
“I would like you to remember that Mark Wilson saved my life that night,” Wilson’s ex-girlfriend, Emma Rigdon, He told the judge Tuesday while on stage. “I really think if he didn’t do what he did, we would have lost our lives that night. Mark is not the reason Hailey isn’t here.”
In all, the defense called 11 witnesses to the victim impact data platform on Wilson’s behalf, compared to just two from the prosecution. Wilson has been granted time spent in remand, which means he will remain behind bars for at least another seven years.
It was not immediately clear whether Wilson’s lawyers would appeal the decision.
“We believe this ruling is a verdict that tells the truth,” Oguchi District Attorney Daphne Totten said outside court after the August 31 ruling. “Every day we ask the jury to bring back verdicts that tell the truth, and the truth in this case is that what Mark Wilson did that night on the bypass was a crime.”
Prosecutors argued that Wilson did not need to fire his gun, while the defense asserted that he practiced legal self-defense under state law that “withstanding you.”
A number of states, including Georgia, have implemented controversial laws to loosen restrictions on the use of lethal force when threatened, stating that there is no duty to back down first.
The case against Wilson has been closely watched by legal experts and civil rights advocates who have long criticized the use of “stand up to you” laws as racist. Perhaps the most famous case of its kind was the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, succeeded in arguing that the use of force was justified under Florida’s self-defense laws.
Studies have found significant racial variance in whether murders are justified, based on the race of the shooter and the race of the person who shot the shooter. A 2020 study by the American Civil Rights Commission said that “murders between whites and blacks have a justifiable outcome 33 percentage points more than homicides between blacks and whites,” with “stand up to you” laws exacerbating that disparity.
“This case, among many others, highlights the urgency of the need for Georgia to address racial disparity in its ‘stand-down’ claims,” Woodall said in a statement to Yahoo News. “It is troubling that people continue to defend themselves against violent behavior, To be criminalized by an unfair legal system.”
Wilson’s lead attorney was even more blunt. Francis Johnson, the former head of the NAACP in Georgia, said his legal team is tasked with stopping “lynchings” in this case.
“This jury spoke today in the voice of this community and said Mark Wilson is not a murderer,” Johnson said after the verdict. “They’ve always known that, and now this jury has spoken.”
Under Georgia law, manslaughter can be a felony or misdemeanor depending on the circumstances. A conviction of Wilson with a felony carries a prison sentence of one to 10 years, but Johnson says the judge chose not to instruct the jury about the misdemeanor option.
“If this option had been included as we requested and insisted, this jury would have found Mark guilty of misdemeanor manslaughter and Mark would have gone home,” Johnson told reporters outside the courtroom, according to 11 Alive, a local NBC affiliate.
Neither Johnson nor the Ogeechee County District Attorney’s office responded to requests for comment from Yahoo News.
CJ Jenkins, organizer and member of the JustGeorgia Coalition that has served as a liaison between the Statesboro community and Wilson’s legal team, says that several important circumstances in the case supported the defendant’s case.
“[The teens] He admitted to hiding evidence. “They admitted they were drunk,” Jenkins told Yahoo News. “Whether it was about the DA sharing information with the judge or summoning the judge… it was an uphill battle.”
In February, a senior judge ordered Ogeechee Circuit Supreme Court Judge Michael Muldrew, who was originally presiding over the case, to disqualify himself from trial due to the “disparate handling” of the case. The defense alleges that Muldreau met with two of the prosecution’s attorneys privately to review emails that Wilson sent to his family.
The conflicting accounts given by the teens who were in the van on the night of the accident are also called into question. They confirmed that they had never yelled racial insults that night, but admitted that they had been drinking while driving. At least one of them, 18-year-old Luke Harry Conley, has been charged with a misdemeanor of obstruction of justice for withholding information.
The 2020 shooting occurred just weeks after the murder of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Wilson told investigators he was nervous about the confrontation and felt he had no other choice but to stand on the ground when he fired on the truck.
“My girlfriend and I were very scared that night,” Wilson told an officer after the shooting. “Truck full – all I saw were white males – white men driving in my face turning over me and yelling racial insults.”
Rigdon, Wilson’s ex-girlfriend, was banned by gag order from speaking publicly about the case. She told Yahoo News she was very disappointed with the way the trial had proceeded.
“My words were perverted,” she said. “I had to defend myself at the witness stand, because I was treated like a beast.
“I didn’t realize how bad our justice system was. I didn’t realize,” she adds, fighting back tears. “And when it affected someone you love – I feel like I’ve been through everything he’s been through in the last two and a half years.”
In the few interactions they had, the family said they saw a change in Wilson.
“I saw him go from a cheerful little boy into a grown man,” Sajuana Williams, Wilson’s aunt, told Yahoo News. “He’s walked into his faith’s walk, because we really believe this whole ordeal is so much bigger than our family. It’s so much bigger than the eye can see and imagine.”
Rigdon says she will continue to stand by Wilson after Tuesday’s ruling.
“I think we went through this for a reason, and I will continue to stand by Mark’s side,” she said. “No matter how many people try to keep me calm, I will always be there supportive, and I will always support. And I will stand by him forever.”
Cover thumbnail: Yahoo News; Images: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images, Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images
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