By Kristen Kitchens
This morning, a jury in the Superior Court of Coffee County acquitted James Henry Young on a Possession of Firearm by a Convicted Felon charge during what may have been the "shortest trial the court has seen."
Young was first arrested in 2019 on the charge after being pulled over for running a stop sign in front of a Douglas Police Department (DPD) officer. When Young was stopped, the officer said he smelled the odor of marijuana, which led to a pat-down and vehicle search. The officer discovered a quantity of suspected marijuana and a black Ruger LCP .380 pistol "tucked under the steering wheel." Young admitted to being a convicted felon, making it illegal for him to be in possession of the firearm.
The hearing began at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday with Judge Andy Spivey presiding over the case and Roy Copeland, a Valdosta-based attorney, representing Young. The case was also the first criminal jury trial Assistant District Attorney Morgan Kirkland has tried.
The state only called two witnesses, DPD Officer Mason Cater and DPD Captain Jerome Perkins.
When he pulled Young over, Cater told the jury that the suspect was "fidgety and nervous" before he conducted the search and seized the firearm from the vehicle. Copeland asked Cater if the gun was tested for fingerprints, and Cater said they were not.
The defense called only one witness, who ended up claiming ownership of the gun. The woman, Ajene Hicks, told the jury she had borrowed Young's truck to move furniture, and in the process, she left her gun, one she claimed to have "had for years," in the truck.
When ADA Kirkland asked Hicks what the firearm's make was, she did not know. Hicks also testified to the gun being "fully loaded," with Kirkland stating it only had three different bullets in the barrel.
During closing arguments, Copeland told the jury the case "wasn't investigated in a meaningful manner," criticizing the department for not dusting the gun and attempting to retrieve fingerprints. Copeland argued, "If the gun had been tested, or dusted, that would have answered the question of him having knowledge of the gun." Copeland also said during the stop, Young was cooperative and told the officers he was unaware of the gun being in the vehicle. "The officer said he was fidgeting and nervous, but he was getting pulled over, which is a reason to be nervous. If you make an arrest, do the due diligence and run the test. Make sure you can meet the burden of proof, and in this case, they have not. If the government fails, then you have to bite the bullet. When you choose a foreperson during your deliberations and write the verdict on the paper, you should return a not guilty verdict."
Kirkland told the jury if the gun had been Hicks, she would have known the make and brought up the fact that he "lied about having any drugs in the vehicle, which shows he would lie to law enforcement."
"The facts, in this case, are simple, he was fidgeting and got pulled over in a traffic stop. He was the only person in the vehicle, and the gun was found within his reach. He is a convicted felon and cannot have a gun. Why was it hidden if the gun was not his, and was Mrs. Hicks? If it was solely in the truck because she was moving it from location to location, why wasn't it sitting in the seat?" Kirkland asked.
Kirkland continued, "I believe this was a family friend who wants to help him out. This story doesn't make sense. The state does not have to prove he [Young] is the gun owner; the state only has to prove that he was in possession of the firearm. Based on the facts and evidence of this case, we ask that you find the defendant guilty."
In less than thirty minutes, the jury announced a not guilty verdict. According to one juror, the acquittal was based on "confusion" about where the gun was hidden in the truck. If Young had been found guilty, he was facing up to 5 years in prison.