Hunter freed after 7 years in prison for brother’s death
A Walton County man will walk out of prison after serving seven years of a life sentence for murdering his brother.
The Georgia Supreme Court today unanimously threw out Joshua Hames‘ 2002 conviction for shooting his brother, Sam, while hunting on the family farm.
The high court held that prosecutors never proved a critical element of the crime and that Hames’ lawyer, a former prosecutor, failed to challenge them on it.
Here’s a summary of the Supreme Court’s decision, prepared by the court’s public information officer, followed by a link to the full decision:
Under a ruling today by the Supreme Court of Georgia, a man who has served more than seven years of a life sentence for the murder of his brother is about to walk out of prison.
In a unanimous ruling, written by Justice David Nahmias, the high court has upheld a lower court’s ruling and thrown out the convictions of Joshua Hames, who in 2002, shot and killed his brother, Sam, while the two were hunting deer on the family farm in Walton County. Hames told law enforcement officers that through the scope of his rifle, he thought he was shooting at a large, predatory animal, such as a bobcat. Neighbors had said they’d recently seen what they believed was a large wild cat in the area, and his brother was not wearing safety orange clothing. A jury convicted Hames of felony misuse of a firearm while hunting, and felony murder based on the misuse of his rifle. Felony murder is a murder that occurs during the commission of another felony. Under state law, a person who is hunting commits a felony if he seriously injures another while using a firearm “in a manner to endanger the bodily safety of another person by consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk…and the disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation…”
At trial and during his appeal, Hames was represented by the same lawyer, a former prosecutor. In 2004, the state Supreme Court of Georgia upheld his convictions and life sentence. In 2005, Hames, representing himself, filed a petition for habeas corpus – a civil proceeding available to already convicted prisoners allowing them to challenge their conviction in the county where they’re serving time. In 2009, the habeas court in Baldwin County set aside Hames’ convictions. It found that the indictment charging Hames was “fatally defective” because it did not include an essential element of the crime with which he was charged. It found that the State failed to prove Hames had the criminal intent or recklessness necessary for conviction, and that Hames received ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The State then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
In today’s decision, the high court finds “that the State failed to produce sufficient evidence at trial to authorize a rational jury to find Hames guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of felony misuse of a firearm while hunting and felony murder.” The State is barred by double jeopardy from retrying him on those charges. The Supreme Court also agrees with the habeas court that the indictment is void because “it fails to allege all the essential elements of the crime or crimes charged.” Specifically, the indictment “omitted entirely any reference to the statutory requirement that Hames ‘consciously disregard[ed] a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his act or omission will cause harm to or endanger the safety of another person.’” And Hames’ attorney was ineffective for failing to challenge the defective indictment or filing a motion for a directed verdict of acquittal. The attorney also failed to raise these issues on appeal.
In today’s opinion, “we have held that the indictment was void for failing to allege an essential element of the crimes of misuse of a firearm while hunting and felony murder, that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support Hames’ convictions beyond a reasonable doubt, and that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective in failing to raise these dispositive claims both at trial and on direct appeal. The writ of habeas corpus was properly granted, and Joshua Hames should be released from prison.”
Click here to download the full decision.