Leonard Giddens, 69, was convicted in Carroll County in December 2003 by a jury, being sentenced by Judge Aubrey Duffey to 12 years in prison.
The jury convicted the man of aggravated assault, instead of murder, even though the victim, 34-year-old Winford Joe McGatha, of Cave Spring, died in the shooting.
Giddens appeared in Judge John Simpson’s court this week, requesting that the conviction be thrown out because he felt the aggravated assault charge was “bogus.”
“I’ve been trying since 2005 to get my case heard, and I’ve been blocked in every way possible,” Giddens told the judge. “The aggravated assault charge was just a back-up to get a conviction if the prosecution couldn’t get the jury to convict me of murder.”
Giddens represented himself in the petition hearing, saying he’d like to see the conviction overturned.
Simpson told Giddens that he would review the case and the law he’d presented, and get a ruling to him within a month.
While in prison for nearly five years and afterward, Giddens researched relevant case law and put together an argument. He’s been trying to get the case overturned ever since.
“It was done strictly in self-defense,” the defendant said. “The court had no authority to convict me. The only reason I was convicted was because of evidence that was withheld.”
Giddens said the crime scene investigator in the case failed to note in his diagram he prepared that a weapon had been found near McGatha’s body. It wasn’t until Giddens’ defense attorney questioned him about this fact that the investigator realized a crime scene video had been taken that day, which showed that a steel rod was present.
He also said the pathologist and coroner testified that Giddens must have shot McGatha a second time while he lay in the fetal position as an explanation for the wound on the left side of McGatha’s head. However, at the trial, two truck drivers testified they heard two shots and saw McGatha fall to the ground after the second shot.
Giddens also doubted the veracity of a witness’s statement made during the trial. A teenage girl who lived near the Circle W testified she heard McGatha’s “dying declaration” to tell his wife and family he loved them, which Giddens said had an emotional impact on the jury.
“That’s not even possible,” Giddens said. “I shot him in the throat.”
Kaitlin Doyle, who prosecuted for the state under the Third Year Practice Act of Georgia, said the jury was justified in convicting Giddens the way they had.
“There was not enough evidence for the jury to convict him of murder, but there was enough for aggravated assault,” Doyle said.
Giddens’ attorney in 2003 was Gerald P. Word, who said, “My understanding from talking to jurors is that they agreed that the first shot, which was the fatal shot, was in self-defense. However, they also felt that the second shot was excessive.”
Giddens and McGatha, both commercial truck drivers, were driving on Highway 16 just outside of Whitesburg when one tried to pass the other, sparking an argument over their CB radios.
About five miles south of Carrollton, police say the two men got out of their tractor-trailers, with Giddens carrying a shotgun and McGatha carrying a metal pipe. They say Giddens shot McGatha once in the head and once in the chest.
At the time of the incident, Giddens lived in Hartsville, S.C. Now, he lives in Lexington, N.C., and is trying to clear his record of the conviction.
On March 31, 2003, Giddens had just loaded in Jackson, Ga. In an effort to avoid heavy traffic and a route that would have taken him through Atlanta, he decided to take a new route, Highway 16.
After the two men’s initial exchange, which he said was full of cursing and racial slurs, Giddens said he decided to pull off at a roadside store, the Circle W. Once stopped, he was told by McGatha to “get out of the truck.”
Giddens saw the man grab a “long object,” which he thought could have been a gun. When McGatha started quickly approaching Giddens’ door, he grabbed his shotgun that he had carried with him for more than 20 years.
“I guess we were about four or five feet from each other and I looked and he’s got a steel rod with a hook on it,” Giddens told Land Line, a commercial trucking business magazine, in 2010. “I didn’t point my gun at him, but I held it at ‘port arms’ across my chest so he could see I was armed.”
When McGatha raised his steel rod up over his head and attempt to strike him, Giddens made the split-second decision to protect himself and pulled the trigger, he said.