Defense: State ‘overly aggressive’ with accused getaway driver

PERRY — The accused getaway driver is just as responsible as the armed robber who was shot and killed by Warner Robins police, a Houston County prosecutor told jurors. But an assistant public defender told the jury that the state was being “overly aggressive” because the incident was an officer-involved shooting and “somebody’s got to pay.”

That was the crux of opening arguments Tuesday from the prosecution and defense in the Houston County Superior Court trial of Albert Rucker Jr., 34, of Macon. He faces multiple charges in connection with the Jan. 16, 2008, armed robbery of the Food Lion at 2607 Moody Road in which Leon Stanford, 38, also known as Charles Thompson, of Macon, died.

According to testimony Tuesday, Stanford, dressed in black and wearing a ski mask, entered the store and tied up three employees. One employee escaped and called 911 using a cell phone.

Meanwhile, Rucker was parked outside in 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser that turned out to be stolen. He was taken into “investigative custody” by police arriving to a 911 dispatch of an armed robbery in progress, according to testimony.

Having left a manager and a cashier tied up in the cooler, Stanford attempted to leave through front of the store but found police waiting outside. He retreated into the store and officers pursued, telling Stanford repeatedly to put down his weapon. He was shot once and died from internal injuries, according to testimony.

Assistant district attorney Duncan Munn told jurors that Rucker is charged with a host of crimes, including kidnapping, just as though he had committed the acts himself. But assistant public defender Claudia Meier told jurors that there is more to the state’s party to a crime statute and asked jurors to consider several questions. Did Stanford do what he’s accused of? Did Rucker participate? How much was Rucker involved? And was Rucker’s involvement voluntary or involuntary?

Meier told jurors there’s no dispute that Stanford was “the bad guy.” But Meier noted that in the attempted murder charge, Rucker is accused as a party to the crime because the indictment stated Stanford fired on Warner Robins police officer Don Edwards.

“At no time did Leon ever fire on Edwards,” Meier told jurors. “At no time does he point a pistol at Edwards or fire at Edwards or at any of the officers.”

Warner Robins police Officer Darren Johnson testified Tuesday that he found Rucker inside a 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser in the grocery store parking lot. Rucker started to drive away when he saw the officer pull in but stopped when the officer initiated a felony traffic stop with revolver drawn in case, the officer said, Rucker was a part of the armed robbery.

Johnson testified that Rucker told him he was waiting for his wife. An arriving sheriff’s deputy stayed with Rucker in a police car as Johnson turned his attention to Stanford, who was spotted through the large glass window at the front of the store. Johnson testified he heard a “loud pop” and another officer shouting, “Shots fired! Shots fired!”

Johnson was among police officers who entered the store in pursuit of Stanford. Johnson testified Stanford pointed a handgun at him and officer Kirk Lowry. Johnson said he also heard three shots.

Stanford was shot as he came out of the meat cutting room and was slumped on the floor, having dropped his gun. According to Johnson’s testimony, Stanford said that “the guy in the PT Cruiser is with me.”

Edwards, the officer who fatally wounded Stanford, testified that Stanford came into the foyer of the store, that a “loud bang” was heard, and that, “it went downhill from there.” Edwards testified that it was believed that Stanford had fired and that there were hostages inside. During the pursuit of Stanford, Edwards testified that he crossed in front of the meat cutting room and that a “gun went off inside.”

“He (Stanford) had a gun in his hand and he was running toward me and I shot him,” Edwards testified.

A police interview of Edwards taped the morning after the shooting was played for jurors, in which Edwards said, “Right before or as he was coming out that middle door (of the meat cutting room) I heard a distinct shot.”

Edwards testified that he fired three shots with his rifle, with the third striking Stanford in the back. Edwards said he cursed Stanford after he shot him — something he said he’s ashamed of and regrets.

“The man just forced me to do something I should have never had to do,” Edwards told jurors.

Warner Robins police officer James Bish, a crime scene investigator, testified that he recovered Stanford’s revolver and that one of five rounds had been fired from Stanford’s gun.

That round struck a metal cart in front of the doors leading out from the cutting room.

Also played for jurors Tuesday was Rucker’s video statement to police in which he said he did not know that Stanford was about to rob the Food Lion. He later changed his story in a written statement, declaring he was coerced by Stanford and feared for his life.

During the taped interview, detective Tom Williams told Rucker, “There’s a big difference between the person inside the store and the person driving the car. ... There’s a big difference.”

Testimony is expected to resume today.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.