Kareem Levon Butler, one of two men originally charged in a July 2019 exchange of gunfire that wounded two other men at an apartment complex on Statesboro’s Lanier Drive, was acquitted of all charges Oct. 6, 2021, by a Bulloch County Superior Court jury.
Butler, now 21, of Hephzibah, had been charged with aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He was 19 and an East Georgia State College student at the time of his arrest in August 2019. Jaden Michael Smith, also 19 and with a Lanier Drive address at the time, was also arrested on charges, which were later placed on the “dead docket” and not prosecuted, of aggravated assault and firearms violations in connection with the same incident.
The night of July 26, 2019, Statesboro Police Department patrol officers responded to a “shots fired” call from Cambridge at Southern-The Palms Apartments and found a man suffering from a gunshot wound to the leg. While he was taken to the hospital, detectives located witnesses and sought warrants to search two apartments. Minutes later, a second man arrived at East Georgia Regional Medical Center seeking treatment for multiple gunshot wounds. Neither had life-threatening injuries, police reported.
In August 2019, Smith was arrested in Macon and Butler in Richmond County after the U.S. Marshals Service reportedly assisted in finding them. A Statesboro Police Department spokesman then said that Smith and Butler had exchanged gunfire that night at the Palms and that the victims had been caught in the crossfire.
But during the recent two-day trial, the jury heard that Butler was acting in self-defense, his attorney, Francys Johnson, said in a phone interview Tuesday. Since only about 3% of federal court cases and about 6% of cases at the state level go to jury trials, having a jury trial is rare and has been made more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic, he observed.
“To get a not-guilty verdict on all counts is a rarity of a rarity,” Johnson said. “So we were grateful that we had a fair judge and an open-minded jury that didn’t rush to judgment like the DA’s office did, but they gave Mr. Butler an opportunity to present his self-defense claim and once again affirmed the right of citizens to defend themselves.”
Smith serving time
The Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office had indefinitely postponed trying the charges against the other original defendant, Smith, through a Feb. 26, 2020, motion to have his case placed on the court’s dead docket. The motion stated that Smith would be a witness in the case against Butler.
Johnson noted that Smith is serving prison time on other charges. He was brought back from Coastal State Prison and testified during Butler’s trial.
The Georgia Department of Corrections online offender database shows Smith as having a five-year sentence on a charge of possession of a firearm by a first-offender from a July 22, 2019, incident and a previous 12-month sentence for reckless conduct, entering vehicle, theft by taking and obstruction of an officer charges from Dec. 4,2017, all from Bulloch County.
Butler also testified, in his own defense.
The case had originally been assigned to Judge Michael T. Muldrew, but Judge F. Gates Peed presided at the actual Oct. 5-6 trial. It occurred while a contempt of court ruling that Muldrew made against Johnson in an unrelated case is awaiting a hearing.
Johnson, on the phone Monday, called Peed an “efficient judge” whose “model temperament” was seen in the trial.
“That helped, and I think once the jury was able to hear from Mr. Butler, whom the police never wanted to hear from and witnesses whom the police never wanted to hear from, I think the jury was able to come to a quick decision after about two hours of deliberations,” Johnson said.
He also praised Assistant District Attorney Russell Jones, who presented the prosecution’s case, as “a consummate professional and a worthy adversary who did his job.”
But Johnson leveled a criticism he has made before at the office now headed by District Attorney Daphne Totten for a lack of staff diversity, which he says results in failure to consider some defendants’ versions of events.
“Mr. Butler had the right to stand his ground against a threat of violence against himself, and if the DA’s office had more diversity in it, then perhaps they wouldn’t have lumped Mr. Kareem Butler, who had come down here and was attending college, with the other characters, some of whom are in the penitentiary or on their way to the penitentiary,” Johnson said.
Ankle monitor removed
Butler had been released on bond soon after his arrest but with the condition that he wear an ankle monitor. He had worn it for two years plus about 30 days and was very pleased to have it removed at the end of the trial and “resume his life” including pursuing the education he first came to Statesboro for, his attorney said.
“Of course having an electronic monitor on you for two years at $300 a month can be quite costly, but in the end, Mr. Butler is able to move on, and we’re grateful to have helped him to do that,” Johnson said.