By Jean Cole
An Ardmore uncle convicted of fatally shooting his nephew following a daylong gathering in 2009 has been sentenced to serve 50 years in prison.
Limestone County Circuit Judge James Woodroof Jr. disregarded pleas for leniency for 39-year-old Keith George in the murder of his nephew, 26-year-old Rusty George.
Before bestowing sentence Woodroof said Keith’s actions the night of March 16, 2009 were “intentional, aggressive and heinous.”
A jury convicted Keith of murder Sept. 14.
During his trial in September, Keith admitted on the stand that he shot Rusty twice in the right thigh and once in the chest following a barbecue at the home of mutual friends James and Sarah Evans of Ardmore. However, Keith told jurors he shot Rusty in self-defense after Rusty became angry and was hitting him and threatening him with a large stick.
Execution or accident?
District Attorney Brian Jones said during Tuesday's sentencing hearing that on the night of the shooting, Keith had retrieved a stick from the bed of his truck and pursued Rusty. Then he retrieved a gun from the cab of his truck and pursued Rusty, who was retreating backwards, even crossing a road, before being shot.
“He followed him across the street and executed him,” Jones said. “A lot of people will sleep a lot better having him in jail.”
The victim’s mother, Zandra George, told the judge she and her family had waited three years, nine months and two days for resolution of this case.
“My heart has been ripped in two,” she said, noting that her family has had to endure the loss of Rusty every day and that their grandchildren have endured nightmares and have had to undergo counseling.
“My son loved life, he loved holidays and he loved every fall day,” she told Woodroof, adding that he had taught the grandchildren to swim and to play and to be together.
She refuted Keith’s claims during the trial that the shooting was accidental.
“Three shots?” she told the judge. “He meant to kill my son, no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.”
When allowed to make a statement, Keith said,” I want to tell the family I’m sorry for this tragic accident. Things happen I a blink of an eye.”
He asked for forgiveness for the shooting, which he said was prompted by fear.
Keith’s son, 15-year-old Austin, told the court how much his father had “kept me in school and encouraged me to do my best” and that he had “tried to make the best of a bad situation.”
He asked the court to give his father what it deemed fair, then asked for permission to hug his father. When the dad and son embraced, Austin said, “I love you, Dad,” and the two separated with tears in their eyes.
Keith’s attorney, Garry Clem of Athens, asked the court to give his client the minimum of 15 years, arguing that a person who kills in the heat of anger is not likely to kill again.
Clem said the fight occurred because of alcohol and a disagreement between “two relatives who loved each other the day before and who would have loved each other the day after.”
Before bestowing sentence, Woodroof described the case as “very heinous.”
“It was somewhat shocking to the court in that I saw no justification for it at all,” he said.
Keith initiated the fight, grabbed his stick to fight and “when that didn’t work, he went to get a gun. It was intentional, aggressive and heinous, and those are the facts,” Woodroof said.
Noting that the minimum sentence in this case is 20 years, Woodroof sentenced Keith to 50 years with credit for time served, which is about one year, and ordered him to pay $3,384 in restitution to the victim’s mother plus court costs.
Keith, who was handcuffed and dressed in a black and white jail uniform, was taken into custody following the hearing and returned to the Limestone County Jail. He will be sent to state prison to begin his sentence once a bed is available.
Family, D.A. satisfied
Zandra told The News Courier after the hearing she was satisfied with the sentence.
“I did not want him to die in prison,” she said. “I just want him to not be able to this to anyone else. I have been without my baby for Christmas for three years now, going on four.”
Jones had this to say after the hearing:
“I am very pleased with the sentence imposed today by Judge Woodroof on Keith George,” he said. “The murder of Rusty George was a senseless act of violence. The sentence of 50 years is very reflective that this type of behavior will not be allowed in our community. I would also like to thank the Sheriff’s Department, the Ardmore Police Department, and Chief Deputy District Attorney Jim Ayers for their hard work on this case.”