On the night of December 20, 2006, 25-year-old Keith Price was shot in the wrist and chest in Lawrenceville, Georgia, while sitting in the front passenger seat of a car. The driver, Allen Epstein, drove Price to a hospital where Price died.
Epstein said the gunman was 25-year-old Christopher Roesser, whom he had known for more than 15 years. Epstein would later testify that he brokered a deal in which Price was going to buy two pounds of marijuana from Roesser.
According to Epstein, they agreed to meet in the parking lot of the trucking company where Roesser worked. Roesser got into the rear seat behind the driver’s seat. Price was sitting in the front passenger seat and Epstein was in the driver’s seat. Epstein said that when an argument erupted over the cost of the marijuana, Price lunged at Roesser and demanded his money. Roesser pulled out a pistol, shot Price, and fled.
Police recovered a plastic pellet gun (which was not the murder weapon), $2,000 in cash, and Roesser’s glasses near the scene of the shooting.
In order to avoid arrest, Roesser went to the home of a friend and hid from authorities. He was arrested in February 2007 when the police received a tip that he was hiding at his friend’s house, and charged him with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault as well as drug and weapons offenses.
Roesser went on trial in April 2008 in Gwinnett County Superior Court. Epstein testified that Price and Roesser quarreled about the cost of the drugs, Price demanded Roesser’s money, and then Roesser shot him.
In response to questions on cross examination, Epstein denied that he ever told police that Price had pulled out a plastic pellet gun and threatened Roesser, and he denied that he threw a pellet gun from the car.
A detective testified and corroborated Epstein’s description of what Epstein said to the police. The detective also denied that he ever told anyone that Epstein had told him that Price pointed the plastic gun at Roesser, and that Roesser then shot Price as Roesser attempted to flee the car.
A medical examiner testified that Price was hit twice by a single bullet that passed through his wrist and lodged in his chest.
Roesser testified in his own defense and said he shot Price in self-defense. He told the jury that a few days before the shooting, Epstein asked him for $50 for gasoline and that during their conversation, Roesser mentioned that he wanted to buy a Sony PlayStation 3 game console to give as a Christmas gift, but did not want to take time off from work to stand in line at the stores to buy one. Roesser said Epstein called him on December 14, 2006 and said he had two of the consoles that he would sell for $1,800. Although the retail price was about $600 for each console, Roesser said he agreed to Epstein's price and they agreed to meet in the parking lot of the business where Roesser worked as a mechanic.
Roesser said he walked up to Epstein’s car and was going to get into the front passenger seat, but was surprised to see a man there whom he did not know. He said he got into the rear seat behind Epstein. He said he was carrying $2,000 in cash and a pistol because he was walking through the parking lot at night and didn’t want to be robbed.
He told the jury that as soon as he got into the rear seat, Price reached back, grabbed him by the neck with one hand and put a gun to his forehead, and demanded, “Give me your money.” Roesser said Price threatened to kill him and that he thought he was going to die. According to Roesser, he took his money out and put it on the seat of the car.
At that moment, Roesser said Price took his eyes off him. Roesser reached into his jacket and in one motion, threw open the car door with his left hand, stepped out of the car, turned his head, and with his right hand pulled the gun out of his jacket and fired once.
He said he then ran to the rear of the car, climbed over a fence, losing his glasses in the process and ran away because he thought Price might come after him. Roesser denied that the meeting had been set up so he could sell marijuana to Price.
On April 30, 2008, the jury convicted Roesser of all the charges and he was sentenced to life in prison plus five years.
After the sentencing, Roesser hired a different attorney, Brian Steel, who filed a motion for a new trial on the ground that the judge had given erroneous jury instructions. In 2009, the motion was granted, and Roesser’s convictions were vacated.
The retrial began in January 2011. Epstein testified as he did in the first trial and denied he ever told anyone that Price had pulled a gun on Roesser. The detective again testified and said Epstein told him that Roesser shot Price during a quarrel over the cost of the marijuana. The detective denied that Epstein told him Price had a gun and denied that he told anyone that Epstein related that Price had a gun.
Prior to the second trial, however, Steel discovered the notes of the medical examiner’s investigator which detailed how the detective had told the investigator that Epstein had said that Price pulled out a gun and threatened to kill Roesser unless Roesser handed over his money. The investigator testified at the second trial and told the jury that the detective had told him that Epstein said Price pointed a gun at Roesser.
Steel also presented testimony by a defense investigator who had interviewed Epstein’s uncle. The uncle, according to the investigator, said that Epstein had told him that Price aimed a gun at Roesser and attempted to rob him.
Finally, Steel called a ballistics expert who testified that based on his analysis of Price’s wounds and photographs of the car, Roesser was likely trying to exit the car when the shot was fired. The expert said the plastic gun recovered at the scene was an almost identical replica of a Colt .380-caliber pistol.
On February 10, 2011, the jury acquitted Roesser on all charges except for a count of voluntary manslaughter, which is a lesser offense included of the murder charges. The jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal on the voluntary manslaughter charge and a mistrial was declared on that lesser charge.
The prosecution then announced it would seek a retrial on the voluntary manslaughter charge. Steel objected and argued that because the jurors had acquitted him of the more serious murder charges, another trial would violate the U.S. Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy. The motion was denied and Steel appealed.
On November 18, 2013, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the trial court’s decision. “In this case, we hold that the jury in acquitting Roesser of malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault necessarily determined that Roesser acted in self-defense and that this issue of ultimate fact constitutes a critical element of voluntary manslaughter,” the court held. “Thus, we conclude that double jeopardy bars the State from prosecuting Roesser again for voluntary manslaughter.”
The Supreme Court ordered the case dismissed and Roesser was released.
– Maurice Possley