Jury exonerates man in killing

LAWRENCEVILLE - A jury needed less than three hours Wednesday morning to determine Keith Owens Jr. had no part in the car-chase killing of a teenage Dacula father in 2007.

Jurors found Owens not guilty on all counts in the death of Jimmy "Lee" West, which included murder, aggravated assault and weapons possession.

After a jail stint of more than two years, the 21-year-old Owens was scheduled to be freed later Wednesday, the possibility of life in prison behind him. He's the third and final defendant to be tried in the Feb. 5 shooting of West, a 19-year-old father of two.

"This was always our weakest case of the three co-defendants," said Assistant District Attorney Nigel Lush, who prosecuted. "I'm not surprised by the jury's verdict ... our office did everything we could."

Owens did not testify in the weeklong trial, and his defense put up no evidence to support his claims of innocence, Lush said.

The prosecution's key witness, Joey Smith, in jail attire Friday testified he drove a Honda in pursuit of the victim while Owens fired a revolver from the passenger seat - claims jurors didn't buy.

Smith, serving a 20-year prison sentence for his role, was required to testify as part of a plea deal with prosecutors that lessened murder charges against him.

"It basically came down to Smith," Lush said. "We had some corroboration for what (he) said, but not a lot."

Owens was arrested in July 2007 after Smith implicated him in talks with prosecutors. Owens has remained at the Gwinnett County Jail since. Prosecutors are prohibited from retrying him on the same set of facts by the U.S. Constitution.

The third defendant, Marco Mcilwain, was sentenced to life in prison last year for blasting what Smith said was a shotgun from the Honda's backseat. Mcilwain is appealing his conviction to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Evidence showed the bullet that fatally struck West in the head was a .380 caliber round, which is inconsistent with the shotgun prosecutors believe Mcilwain was firing, Lush said.

Prosecutors say a longstanding grudge between the men - escalated by boyish threats - triggered West's murder.