Houston & Peach

Warner Robins man now faces murder charge in shooting of friend

Austin James
Austin James

A Warner Robins man is now facing charges of felony murder and aggravated assault in the Sept. 29 shooting of a friend.

Austin James, 23, was originally charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct in the death of Joseph Westley McKinley, 24, in McKinley’s Franklin Square home in Warner Robins.

In September police said the two friends were apparently playing with a gun in the 2:15 a.m. shooting in which alcohol may have been a factor. McKinley suffered a gunshot wound to the head and died at the scene.

James was arrested on the new charges last week after a review of the case by a Houston County grand jury. The original charges were dismissed, according to Superior Court records.

James was released Friday from the Houston County jail on an additional $10,000 bond pending trial. Special conditions of the original $25,000 bond remain and include electronic monitoring, a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, no weapons and no alcohol.

The order also requires James to reside at the home of his parents in Houston County.

James’ Warner Robins attorney Nick White said Warner Robins police “got it right” when they charged James with reckless conduct and involuntary manslaughter.

“We think the officers on the scene got it right,” White said. “He was charged with what happened, and then the DA’s Office is going in a direction that does not meet the facts of this case.”

James, McKinley and another friend had been shooting darts and playing games at a friend’s house when they returned to McKinley’s home where all three planned to spend the night, White said.

The incident happened as McKinley was trying to find his key and unlock the door.

“There was some playing back and forth between ‘em and the gun accidentally fired and unfortunately … (the bullet) hit the friend in the head ... and killed him,” White said.

He declined to elaborate.

White said James is not guilty of felony murder, which White said is based on the underlying charge of aggravated assault that “is putting someone else in fear of their life or great bodily injury and it is done in the context of an argument or a fight.

“There was no argument. There was no fight,” White said.

White said James, McKinley and the other friend were close.

“It really was a terrible tragedy,” White said. “The young man that died was a best friend of Austin’s. They went from school together and still hung out together and both of their houses. Their parents were friends. The young man that was with them that night was friends with them. It was a very tight-knit group of boys that went to high school together.”

James has been fully cooperative with law enforcement from calling 911 to waiting for officers to arrive to giving his statement to officers, White said.

A native of Warner Robins, McKinley was a 2013 graduate of Veterans High School, was certified in both welding and commercial truck driving and worked for TMC Transportation, according to his obituary.

McKinley “was training in preparation to join the United States Army so that he could bravely protect his country and support his fiancé and their growing family,” his obituary stated.

Assistant District Attorney Eric Edwards, who is prosecuting the case, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Witnessing a crime and reporting it can be just as frightening as being the victim of a crime. Here’s what you should do if you witness illegal activity.

Becky Purser covers breaking and Houston County news. She previously covered crime and courts for Houston and Peach counties for The Telegraph. A graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with a bachelor’s degree in communications/news-editorial sequence, Becky also has covered city and county government for Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia newspapers.
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