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Ga. top court tosses hunter murder conviction

July 12, 2010 at 04:52 PM

Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA (AP) - Claude Hames had to endure two tragedies: One when his son Sam was shot and killed while deer hunting, the other when his son Joshua was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for pulling the trigger.

But years spent trying to exonerate Joshua paid off Monday when the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the felony murder conviction and paved the way for Joshua Hames’ release after 7 years behind bars.

“We’re just happy to get our son back,” said Claude Hames, a high school science teacher in the east Georgia town of Social Circle. “I was elated. I was overjoyed.”

Joshua Hames had argued for years that he thought he was shooting a bobcat or another large animal through the scope of his rifle during that ill-fated 2002 hunting trip on the family’s farm in Walton County.

Hames, who was 20 at the time, said neighbors had reported they’d recently seen a large cat roaming the area, and that his brother wasn’t wearing bright ora nge safety clothing.

But prosecutors said Hames violated a state law that allows prosecutors to pursue felony charges against a hunter if he seriously injures another person using a weapon by “consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” A jury agreed, convicting him of felony misuse of a firearm while hunting and felony murder.

The conviction was upheld in 2004 by the Georgia Supreme Court. But Hames hired new attorneys to press a new challenge - this time, they argued that the indictment was faulty because prosecutors failed to prove he had criminal intent or recklessness necessary for conviction.

“It was an accident. It was a tragedy. But it was not a crime,” said Holly Pierson, one of Hames’ defense attorneys. “Joshua loved his brother Sam and would not have done anything to hurt him.”

A Baldwin County judge in 2009 set aside the convictions, finding the indictment to be “fatally defective.” And Georgia’s top court upheld that r uling in Monday’s decision, which found that prosecutors failed to prove that Hames made a conscious decision to endanger someone else’s safety.

The ruling, written by Justice David Nahmias, ruled the state “failed to produce sufficient evidence at trial to authorize a rational jury to find Hames guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” It concluded, bluntly: “The writ of habeas corpus was properly granted, and Joshua Hames should be released from prison.”

Hames, who is now 28, could be free this week. The state Attorney General’s office will not ask the Georgia Supreme Court to reconsider its opinion, said Russ Willard, a spokesman for the office.

It’s all vindication to Claude Hames, who said he plans to take his son to a steak dinner shortly after his release.

“It was an accident,” he said, as his eyes teared up. “It was tough on him. It was tough on us.”

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