The defense attorney for Dustin Leigh Cowart asked a Bulloch County Superior Court Judge Tuesday to grant immunity from prosecution because Cowart acted in self-defense the night he shot and killed Ray Clifford “Buddy” Beasley, Jr.
That’s what Statesboro attorney Matt Hube told Judge Michael Muldrew in an immunity hearing for which Cowart was present – in his jail scrubs and shackles – on Tuesday.
The contention was staunchly opposed by the state and while Courtney Patterson has been the assigned prosecutor for the case, she unexpectedly became ill so the state was represented by ADA Barclay Black and ADA Judith Oglesby on Tuesday. To the surprise of most, the court had initially scheduled a day and a half for the hearing, but by 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, both sides had concluded their presentations.
Dustin Cowart was arrested and charged with the murder of Buddy Beasley on October 27, 2020 after the two arranged to meet up at the intersection of Rocky Ford Road and Mixon Road. Authorities contend that Cowart was sending harassing communications to Beasley’s fiance, Kacie Mallard Cowart, who is the ex-wife of Dustin Cowart. The two met in person to sort out the issue that night.
In November 2020, a preliminary hearing was held in conjunction with a bond hearing. At that time, Investigator Reid Odom of the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office testified that a friend, B.M., had driven Beasley to a predetermined location because Beasley had been drinking and did not want to drive. Inv. Odom told the court that Beasley said in text messages that he did not want to fight Cowart and that Cowart alluded to acts and threats of violence in the text exchanges.
Inv. Odom also testified that Cowart told investigators the following in an interview:
Beasley put his hand in his [Cowart’s] face and Cowart told him not to do that and pushed his hand out of the way. That’s when Beasley tried to pull him from the car, Cowart caught himself on the door with his knee, brandished his gun, and Beasley jumped further into the car to try to grab the handgun. Beasley had the handgun, Cowart snatched it from him and fired two shots.[Paraphrased from testimony of Odom – Odom did not quote the interview explicitly in his testimony]
Judge Muldrew found that ample probable cause existed to bind the case over to a grand jury for consideration. Muldrew did not render a decision on the request for bond and Cowart was indicted on a handful of charges in February of 2021.
Immunity Hearing on June 15
An immunity hearing takes place before a judge without a jury. Unlike in other proceedings, at an immunity hearing, the burden of proof is on the defense but only to a standard that the preponderance of evidence – the fact finder is convinced that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true. This is unlike the standard for the state of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ which exists during a criminal jury trial.
In Georgia, specific statutes grant immunity from prosecution to those who have used deadly force to defend themselves or others from attack. O.C.G.A. §16-3-24.2 provides that an individual “who uses threats or force in accordance with four code sections on defense of self or others, defense of habitation, “stand your ground”/no duty to retreat, or defense of property “shall be immune from criminal prosecution therefore unless in the use of deadly force, such person utilizes a weapon the carrying or possession of which is unlawful by such person…”
There are limitations, including:
- the person seeking to use the defense cannot be the aggressor;
- the person cannot provoke an attack as an excuse to harm the other person;
- the person cannot use the justification defense when committing a felony.
If the judge believes it is more likely self defense than not, he would rule in favor of the defendant.
Both the state and the defense had a slew of witnesses subpoenaed for the Tuesday hearing, including passing motorists, four Bulloch County deputies, and an investigator with the Sheriff’s Office. Others were subpoenaed and sequestered but were not called to testify.
2 Passing Motorists and 1 Nearby Resident
First to testify was A.R., a motorist who was driving home the night of October 27, 2020 when she saw a Ford F-150 partially in the road and a man laying on the ground. A.R. testified that she got out of her vehicle, saw that a man had been shot, and asked what happened. That’s when another man, now known to her as Dustin Cowart, said “I had to do it. I had to shoot him.”
A.R. said Cowart was on the phone when she approached him and said Beasley had reached for his gun and he (Cowart) had to shoot him (Beasley). She said Cowart said, “They’re going to come back and kill me.” A.R also said he appeared “very shaken up, very frantic, very upset for sure.” That’s when she called 911.
She told dispatch and testified in court that a vehicle then came speeding down the road and parked before people exited frantically and began ‘touching and hugging’ the man laying in the road, something she tried to tell them not to do. A second car arrived soon after and A.R said there were 7-8 people there before law enforcement arrived. One of those individuals, she testified, was looking for Cowart, was looking into Cowart’s truck, and closed the door to Cowart’s vehicle.
J.S also testified Tuesday. He resides a short distance from the intersection of Rocky Ford Road and Mixon Road where the incident occurred. J.S. said he was driving by, thought there had been an accident because of the man laying in the road, and he turned around in the next driveway to return to see if he could help in any way. J.S knew both Cowart as an acquaintance who worked on some equipment for him and Beasley as a mutual friend, though he was not immediately aware that both were involved when he pulled over to help.
J.S testified that he heard Cowart say “I had to do it. I had to shoot him.” He said Cowart said Beasley was trying to pull him out of the truck. J.S told the court that he suggested that Cowart put the gun down and sit on the back of the truck tailgate until police arrived. He said Cowart was very concerned, didn’t know what to do or what to say, and he told Cowart that if he ‘had to do it,’ it would be fine and that he just needed to do what police said.
D.S. testified because he lives on Mixon Road and he and his fiance heard commotion and gunfire the night of the shooting. He said he went outside and saw a truck with two individuals in it – one of which he heard saying, ‘I need to get off the phone and call my wife.” The truck backed up and quickly drove away even though his fiance tried to get them to stop. D.S. testified that there were two or three vehicles of people there after the shooting before police arrived. “Kids, lots of people, It felt like forever for police to get there,” he said. He, too, testified that an individual was looking into Cowart’s truck, yelling for him (Cowart) to come out while others hugged Beasley and attempted to render aid.
D.S. knows Cowart personally from a period where they both worked at a local Bulloch County business and he said he told Cowart to approach the police with his hands up and do what they said.
Four BCSO deputies also testified to their doings at the crime scene, including Sergeant Jason Borne, Lieutenant Tracy Miller, Deputy Rhett Kelley, and Deputy Andrew Cloyd. All four testified that they were dispatched to the scene for a call of a man shot and laying in the roadway. At least ten to fifteen people were present upon arrival of law enforcement and each testified that it was initially difficult and “challenging” to get the friends and family of Beasley away from the body and a safe distance from the scene. Each mentioned the chaos of the scene as well as the emotional and angry demeanor of the people present, most of which was directed at Cowart.
Hube attempted to play deputy body camera footage from that evening to show the chaos of the scene, but courtroom technology was inoperable and prohibited the defense from playing the body cam clips or the 911 calls.
Investigator Reid Odom
Investigator Reid Odom was called to the stand by the state to answer a number of questions about his investigation of the crime scene. He stated that the last text message between Beasley and Cowart on Oct. 27 was at 9:58 p.m. and dispatch received the call regarding the shooting at 10:19 p.m. He arrived on scene at 10:34 p.m.
Cowart was already in custody at that time and a sheet had been placed over Beasley. Odom contacted a supervisor to send the full CID team and he began to collect evidence, photograph Beasley, and secure a search warrant of Cowart’s truck to test for gunshot residue.
Odom testified that it was his position that because one shell casing was from inside the vehicle and one was on the hood of the vehicle, one shot was made from inside the truck and another from outside of the truck. Gunshot residue was found on both sides of the driver-side window sill that was tested, though the test was unable to determine where exactly the residue was located – only that it was present.
Toxicology & Autopsy Reports
Four crime lab reports were entered into evidence Tuesday: an autopsy, a gunshot residue report, a drug screen, and an alcohol report – the latter three which were defense exhibits.
The state contended that an abrasion on the left index finger was a defensive wound that Beasley received when he was defending himself from attack. The defense, however, argued that there was no indication that the abrasion was a defensive wound and it could have been one incurred during a struggle. Hube cited “other injuries” on the autopsy report, including a contusion on Beasley’s left hand and a horizontal abrasion on the right arm – neither of which were observed at the crime scene on the night of the shooting.
In his cross examination of Investigator Reid Odom, Hube asked if Odom was aware that Beasley’s Blood Alcohol Content was 0.176 and that a drug screen indicated a presence of amphetamines. (Note: The specific type of amphetamine was not mentioned during the proceedings. Amphetamines can be legal substances like those prescribed for ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, and narcolepsy, or illegal substances like methamphetamine, MDMA/ecstasy, and ephedrine.)
Hube asked Odom if combining alcohol with amphetamines “can” make someone aggressive, to which Odom replied affirmatively, but said it depends on each individual person as to how a combination of substances interact.
Request of the Court
ADA Barclay Black told Muldrew in a closing argument that the defense had not met the burden of proof that Cowart should be immune from criminal prosecution and that the only evidence was “a self-serving statement to a third party” that he did it. He said there were no eyewitnesses and no one present Tuesday testified to the facts of the events. “Mere conjecture doesn’t cut it.” He said the defense’s failure to offer testimony on the alcohol and drugs in Beasley’s system, the effects they had on Beasley, or the demeanor of Beasley coupled with physical evidence that was contradictory to the defense’s account of events left the court with no choice but to find the defense failed to meet the burden of proof.
Though it was not the crux of the argument, Hube alluded to a compromised crime scene that could have been inadvertently disrupted by the number of people near the body, near Cowart’s truck, and in the area that would later be taped off by law enforcement.
Hube also disagreed that Cowart’s statements were self-serving. He contended that the “excited utterances” made in the immediate moments after the shooting were admissible in court because they have ‘indicia of reliability’ and that Investigator Odom conceded that what the state referred to as a ‘defensive graze wound’ could have been something else. Hube said it suggests a struggle leading up to the shooting.
The 4-5 feet between Beasley’s body and the truck did not mean that’s how far Beasley was from Cowart at the time of the shooting either, Hube told the court. “If someone is shot in the chest, as in this case, almost certainly they’re going to move in a backwards direction before they fall to the ground and four feet is not a very long distance.”
The defense said the state is unable to rebut the fact that witnesses attested to the fact that Cowart said Beasley “reached for his gun” and “was trying to pull [him] from the vehicle.” Hube again brought up the .176 BAC and amphetamine presence in Beasley’s blood, calling it a ‘scary combination.’
“He believed he was in grave danger and he had to do it. It was a necessity to defend himself.”
Ultimately, Judge Muldrew did not issue a decision at the conclusion of the proceedings and said he would enter an Order at a later time, possibly under seal. It is not known when the Order will be offered by the judge.