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Shopowner found not guilty in killing of burglar

Originally ran here as:
"Tant not guilty Jury acquits bike shop owner in teen's death"
by Jim Houston, Staff Writer
The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
January 11, 2002

Columbus, Georgia -- Columbus bike shop owner Jack Tant was found not guilty Thursday of the murder of a 15-year-old boy he shot as three youths attempted to burglarize his business.

The jury of 10 women and two men deliberated 80 minutes acquitting before the 74-year-old businessman, rejecting District Attorney Gray Conger's plea for a conviction on either murder or manslaughter.

Tant smiled after the verdict was read in the packed courtroom, ending the four-day trial and the 18 months of uncertainty with which he has lived since the June 16, 2000, incident.

"I haven't had any fear from the start," said Tant, surrounded by his family and defense attorney Mark Shelnutt shortly after the trial ended. "I wasn't worried about it. I had a feeling it would come out good.

"But it shouldn't even have gone to court," he added.

Tant said he'll be back at work today at his bicycle and lawn mower repair shop, "doing the same thing I've been doing."

Shelnutt said the verdict reflects what really happened that evening at Tant's 1742 Benning Drive business.

"He went up to check on his business and was attacked by intruders. It's nothing more than that," the defense attorney said. "I think when the jury heard all the evidence, they saw that's what happened."

For Tamara Martin, mother of Jermaine L. Long who died on the path between stacked bicycle parts at Tant's place of business, the verdict brought tears, anger and frustration.

"It's not fair. It's not fair," she cried as she was consoled by victim's witness workers in the district attorney's office.

Later, as she left the Government Center, she protested that the system didn't work as it should have.

"It's not fair. It was an all-white jury," she protested. "All-white. Not one black. The white jury. The white man - everybody's white." Martin also predicted more trouble on the horizon for the man who shot her son.

"He's gonna kill the next n----r that comes along," she said.

Conger said the system worked as it was supposed to work, with both sides having a fair opportunity to present their cases.

"A verdict of not guilty in this case does not mean the system doesn't work," the prosecutor said. "The police charged, the grand jury indicted and the case needed to be tried.

"I can see how the jury reached the verdict it reached under the evidence presented," Conger said.

The prosecutor and defense attorney discounted the significance of having an all-white jury decide the case.

"The jury we had was a proper jury under the jury composition we had that week," Conger said.

Shelnutt said the decision as to who would sit on the jury was made after all potential jurors were questioned by the court and prosecution and defense attorneys. Jury strikes were based on information received from the individual jurors, not on race, he said.

When the two lawyers made final arguments to the jury Thursday morning, Conger urged the jury to convict Tant of murder or manslaughter, despite evidence that Long and his teen-age companions entered Tant's place of business to commit a crime.

"Jermaine Long wasn't perfect," Conger said. "He was a young man who, with some of his friends, went to steal some bicycle parts. ... He was no doubt in the middle of a criminal enterprise when he got killed.

"But that doesn't carry the death penalty," the prosecutor said.

Conger told the jury to decide whether Tant was really attempting to prevent a felony when he fired the fatal shotgun blast that killed Long " ... or was his intention one of revenge, of payback, of 'I'm so damn mad about these thieves that I'm going to shoot one.'

It wasn't necessary to shoot Long, he argued. The three youths were there to steal, not to harm anyone, especially when they were unaware anyone was there that night, he said.

Conger also reminded the jury that Tant didn't call 911 to report the shooting until five minutes and 44 seconds after a neighbor had reported the sound of gunshots. That gave Tant time to try to manipulate the scene to support his claim of self-defense, he argued.

"He thought he had all the time he needed to clean up the scene," Conger said. "He was covering up, turning the body over, putting a knife under the kid's arm."

Tant was mad, he said. He was tired of being ripped off and he was out to make someone pay, the prosecutor said.

"He wasn't preventing a theft - he was sending messages," Conger argued. "He probably hasn't had a theft or a burglary since then. He's achieved his aim, but at a tragic cost."

Shelnutt asked the jury to consider that Tant, a businessman who attempted to defend his property, is the real victim of the events of June 16.

"That this man is on trial for cold-blooded murder is an outrage," he told the jury. "Your verdict should take about as long as it took for Mr. Tant to react that night."

Shelnutt also told the jury to disregard a manslaughter verdict. It's only offered by the prosecution as a lure toward compromise, when there should be no such compromise, he said.

When Long and two other teen-agers jumped over the two fences and began walking down the pathway between stacked bicycle parts toward Tant, they spotted the bike shop owner, Shelnutt said. They knew the only thing standing between them and what they wanted was a senior citizen - and they kept coming, he said.

It's undisputed that Long carried a claw hammer and that when he was shot he was facing Tant on the path, about 36 feet away, he said.

"The law doesn't say you have to stop and conduct an interview with the intruders," Shelnutt said. "They were not coming in there to sell Girl Scout cookies.

"If this isn't a self-defense case, there never has been one," Shelnutt told the jury.

Even if it wasn't self-defense, there's no doubt that the three teen-agers were intruders who had come onto Tant's place of business to burglarize and to steal, if not to assault, Shelnutt said. Under state law, that's all that's necessary for a jury to find that Tant was justified in using deadly force, he said.

He asked the jury to exercise its right to find that Tant, acting in defense of his place of business, is immune from criminal prosecution under state law.

"Do what's right," Shelnutt concluded.

Contact Jim Houston at (706) 571-8566
Staff writer Meg Pirnie contributed to this report.

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