Around 1 a.m. on June 14, 2020, 21-year-old Marc Wilson, who is Black, and his 21-year-old girlfriend, Emma Rigdon, who is white, left a Taco Bell in Statesboro, Georgia. At a stoplight, they pulled up next to a pickup truck. Wilson’s lawyers say that at least one of the white teenagers inside the truck shouted the n-word and “your lives don’t matter.”
Wilson later told police that the teenagers in the pickup truck swerved in front of him, tried to knock his sedan off the highway, and threw an object that impacted the car with a loud sound that made him think they might be shooting at him. Wilson pulled out a gun and fired out his window at the truck. The bullet struck and killed 17-year-old Haley Hutcheson, who was sitting in the pickup’s backseat.
Prosecutors charged him with felony murder and aggravated assault, which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison and the possibility of the death penalty. Wilson claimed self-defense.
“Me and my girlfriend were very scared that night,” Wilson told police later that week, according to a detective’s testimony. “Everything going on in this country, I’m not going to let me and my girl get run off the road.”
Wilson was denied bail because Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Court Judge Michael Muldrew concluded that he “poses a significant threat” to the community. He remained in jail two months later when a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot and injured Jacob Blake, a Black 29-year-old, sparking protests in that city that drew armed counterprotesters and Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old who fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26. Rittenhouse, who made a $2 million bond with the help of donations from supporters, claimed self-defense, testifying that he feared for his life following a confrontation with three men who chased him, hit him with a skateboard, and tried to kick him. On Friday, a jury acquitted him of all charges.
Wilson’s case, which is scheduled to go to trial in early 2022, presents a similar legal defense: A young person says he fired his gun at a group that threatened his safety.
But in a justice system that has historically treated Black defendants more harshly than white ones, Wilson’s case raises the question of whether a young Black man’s self-defense claim will carry the same weight as those made by other recent high-profile defendants.
Self-defense laws, including the castle doctrine and “stand your ground” provisions, offer legal justification to kill people who pose a physical threat. Castle doctrine is based on the idea that a person has a right to defend their home, or castle, if they are in imminent danger. In 1994, Utah passed a law that extended that right to self-defense to any place a person has a legal right to be. Florida followed in 2005. To date, 34 states have similar laws in place. Georgia’s states that a person is justified in using force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury.” The white men who followed and fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery, a Black 25-year-old, while he was jogging near their neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia, last year have also claimed self-defense and are currently on trial for charges that include murder.
Who is protected by such laws often depends on race, say the laws’ critics. In 2020, the United States Commission on Civil Rights released a study of racial disparities in Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, finding that homicides in which the shooter is white and the victim is Black were ruled to be justified 11.2% of the time, compared to just 1.2% of the time when the shooter is Black and the victim is white.
“What we do know, and what we cannot ignore, is that the same racial biases that have permeated our criminal justice system cannot be separate from this issue,” the commission concluded.
Rittenhouse was acquitted because he fired at people who he said attacked him — even though he had violated a local curfew order and, according to prosecutors, pointed his assault rifle at the men before they pursued him.
George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 because he was in a physical struggle with Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old who was walking home — even though Zimmerman initiated the encounter against the orders of the 911 dispatch operator he'd called to report that a person he deemed suspicious was passing through his neighborhood.
Adam Kind faced no charges for fatally shooting Bo Morrison, a Black 20-year-old hiding on his porch in Wisconsin after police broke up a party at a neighboring home in 2012 — even though officers were still on the block, responding to his complaint about the loud music next door.
But for some Black defendants in recent years, evidence of self-defense has not been enough to avoid a conviction.
After fatally shooting a Georgia construction contractor who had threatened his son with a knife in 2005, John McNeil was convicted on murder charges and sentenced to life in prison. He was released in 2013 after prosecutors lowered the charge to voluntary manslaughter.
John White was convicted of manslaughter for the 2006 fatal shooting of a teenager who was part of a group of young white people yelling racial slurs and threatening White’s son in the driveway of his home in Long Island, New York. White was pardoned after spending five months in prison.
Critics of looser self-defense laws argue that easier access to guns coupled with more leeway to use them make for a deadly combination.
“Tensions are high, gun laws are lax, and there is this really permissive environment for this kind of confrontation,” said Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown, a gun safety advocacy group, speaking specifically about the Rittenhouse case. “We have political polarization in this country and there are people itching for a fight.”
Wilson’s case marks another measure of self-defense laws in America and who those laws protect.
After Hutcheson was shot, the teens in the pickup truck drove to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The four teens — 18-year-olds Mason Glisson, Luke Conley, and Ashton DeLoach, and a 16-year-old girl — told police a similar story: They were at a stoplight beside a sedan, and when the light turned green and they drove off, the sedan's driver opened fire on them, according to court documents. Though they admitted to drinking while on the road, they were not breathalyzed.
When officers asked if they had any idea why someone would shoot at them, they said they didn’t know. But all four said that they believed that one of the people in the sedan was a classmate named Marijane — DeLoach said he was “1,000% sure” it was her, according to police records. They had encountered Marijane, who is white, earlier that night in a convenience store with her boyfriend, who is Black.
The 16-year-old girl in the truck testified that when the truck passed the sedan at an intersection, Conley and DeLoach stuck their hands and head out the window, though she said she didn’t know if they said anything. She said she thought they were waving at the person they assumed — mistakenly, it turned out — to be Marijane.
In one of the police reports, Detective Dustin Cross wrote that Conley "was seen yelling out of a window of the victim vehicle just prior to the shooting."
In his interviews with police, Conley gave conflicting statements about who he thought was in the sedan and was charged with obstruction of justice and arrested — that case remains pending.
The morning after the shooting, the Statesboro Police Department issued a press release seeking information about it. Later, they received a call from a woman who said her friend Emma Rigdon had told her about an incident that might be related: the woman conveyed that Rigdon told her the shooting had come after the teens in the truck “started using racial slurs and racial signs,” according to the police report.
The next day, officers met with Rigdon. Wilson, who happened to call her while she was speaking to police, joined the conversation by speakerphone.
Rigdon said that when the couple pulled up at the intersection outside the Taco Bell, Wilson told her that the guys in the truck beside them were saying the n-word to him. She herself didn’t hear them, she said, because she had been distracted by her puppy in her lap.
But after the light turned green, the truck swerved in front of them, and two boys were leaning out the windows shouting at them, she and Wilson said. “A truck full of — all I saw were white males — white males driving their car at me and are flipping me off and yelling racial slurs,” Wilson said to police.
“With everything going on right now,” Rigdon told police, referring to the 2020 racial justice protests across the nation, Wilson “honestly thought that they were trying to run him off the road, and I was like, ‘Marc, I’m scared.’”
“It’s in the middle of the night,” Rigdon testified at a hearing. “There’s no lights on that road. I didn’t really know what was gonna happen.”
An embankment lay beside the two-lane road, and Wilson told police he veered close enough to hear the rumble strips along the edge of the pavement. He said he fired two or three “warning shots” below the truck, which caused the truck's driver, Glisson, to slow down — DeLoach recounted the same detail in his testimony, saying "it looked like he was shooting at the ground at first."
Then the truck accelerated, and Wilson heard a “loud boom,” he said. He said he thought the truck had either rammed his car or the teens had returned fire. Police suspect the sound may have been from a thrown beer — officers found beer cans by the side of the road matching the brand the teens were drinking that night.
“I had no clue what hit me,” Wilson told police, according to Detective Travis Kreun’s testimony. “I thought that they were shooting at me.”
Wilson fired again, then turned at the next intersection.
The day after the call with police, Wilson turned himself in.
In court, Wilson’s lawyers have argued that his actions meet the standard of the state’s self-defense law, which categorizes a person’s vehicle as a dwelling where they have “the right to stand his or her ground and use force.”
The evidence “shows that Wilson’s vehicle was being attacked by the truck” and “shows the racial animus exhibited” by the teens in the truck, defense attorneys wrote in a brief to the court. “Wilson attempted to ignore the truck’s initial encroachment of his vehicle lane of travel. However, the truck continued in its violently aggressive advancement causing Wilson to fear for his life and the safety of his passenger.”
The defense team has cited America’s history of racist violence against Black people as further explanation for the fear Wilson may have felt.
“My worst nightmare as a Black man in this country is to be on a deserted road with a truckload of white, drunk men,” defense lawyer Francys Johnson said in court. “There are bodies that’s strewn through the history of this country that say that that’s a reasonable fear for a number of people.”
Johnson noted the 1998 killing of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged from the back of a pickup truck in Texas; three white men were convicted of murder, two of them sentenced to death. In another incident, in 2011, a pickup truck full of white teens fatally struck James Anderson in a parking lot in Mississippi; the driver was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
At a moment when racial tensions were simmering across the country, Wilson's case sparked an online backlash against both him and the teens. Hutcheson’s aunt, Heather Ernst, said in court that her family has received threats on social media, including anonymous comments about desecrating Hutcheson’s grave. In a brief to the court, Wilson’s attorney Mawuli Davis identified a man in a “white heritage” Facebook group who made a “racially motivated threat” against Wilson and attended at least one court hearing.
Prosecutors have argued that Wilson acted unreasonably and challenged the allegation that the white teens carried racist beliefs. In her questioning of DeLoach at a hearing, Assistant District Attorney Daphne Totten asked, “Do you have any Black friends?” And after he replied that a Black friend lived with him for some time, Totten said, “So would it be fair to say you don’t have any issues with Black people?”
In his testimony, DeLoach recalled an incident from earlier that night: After a brief, friendly interaction with a middle-aged Black man in a convenience store parking lot, Conley said to the man “Black Lives Matter” in a tone that indicated he “was just saying it to be funny” and “trying to be a little smart aleck,” DeLoach said. “And I kind of told him to shut up about it.”
When Conley took the stand during a preliminary hearing and Wilson’s defense attorney asked if he had uttered racial slurs that night, including n-word lover, he exercised his Fifth Amendment right, declining to answer any questions.
In Glisson’s testimony, he said that he and his friends sometimes used the n-word in “a joking matter.” “I don’t mean nothing by it,” DeLoach said, noting that he has “a lot of Black friends.” “I’m not racist at all.”
Totten has argued that Wilson acted out of anger more than self-defense. On that basis, Totten opposed setting a bail amount for Wilson, even though he had no criminal record.
“We believe if a person is inclined to act like that because of words or hand gestures there’s no telling what he might do if granted a bond,” she said in court.
Judge Muldrew agreed.
“Due to the fact that Mr. Wilson’s anger appears to have overtaken him when he had contact with the persons in the truck,” Muldrew ruled, “the court finds that the defendant poses a significant threat to the persons in the community and bond will be denied.”
Wilson remains in jail in Bulloch County as he awaits trial. ●
Albert Samaha is Inequality Editor at BuzzFeed News and author of two books, "Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes" and "Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City." He is based in New York.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.