Judge denies 'stand your ground' claim by man who shot Savannah teen canvassing for Warnock

Javontae Vann, who was shot while canvassing for U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in December 2022, said the shooting has not put a damper on his enthusiasm for politics: “It makes me feel as if there's more that needs to be done." (Jake Shore/The Current)

A Chatham County judge denied a “stand your ground” claim by the man accused of shooting a Black teenager who had approached his door in December 2022 while canvassing for U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

In a ruling on Monday, Superior Court Judge Penny Freesemann said there was not enough evidence to support that Jimmy Paiz, 44, acted in self-defense and reasonably felt threatened by the politically-active 15-year-old, who was trying to convince Savannah voters on Dec. 1, 2022, to turn out for Warnock’s tight runoff election against Herschel Walker.

At the hearing, attorneys for Paiz, a Honduran-American veteran and writer, showed security footage from the incident to claim that the 6-foot-tall teenager and canvasser, Javontae Vann, tried to use the doorknob to get into Paiz’s house and that Paiz felt reasonably threatened.

Vann, who had taken leave from school to testify in court Monday, said he was trying to put campaign literature in the door of Paiz’s east Savannah home because Paiz didn’t answer — a standard practice of campaign canvassing. Instead, Paiz interpreted the encounter as a threat and shot Vann through the door with a rifle. Vann was hit in the leg.

“I have to tell you I find it horrifying that what was shown to me could ever be considered as justification, frankly, for shooting another human being through the door,” Chatham County Superior Court Judge Penny Freesemann said, before denying the self-defense motion.

Paiz’s lawyers, Will Claiborne and David Utter, will have another chance to argue self-defense to jurors should the case go to trial. Claiborne declined to comment when reached by The Current. Paiz is facing one count of aggravated assault and one count of aggravated battery, which both hold up to 20 years in prison.

High schooler driven to politics

After the hearing, The Current spoke with Vann and his mother, Lashianna.

She permitted her son to canvas for a political campaign only after he turned 15 years old.

The Savannah High School student said he wanted to get involved in politics after learning about Barack Obama’s election and was inspired by politicians like Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, Donald Trump and, later, Warnock. In late 2022, Vann jumped at the chance to canvas for the Savannah native.

“He’s a Christian. He’s not afraid to spread the word of God. He’s Black. He’s from Savannah,” Vann said. “So I see a lot of similarities and … we probably have a lot of (the same) struggles.”

Warnock called Vann at the hospital after the shooting, Vann said. Shot in the leg, it took two to three months before he could run again, and Vann was only recently allowed to begin practicing again with Savannah High School’s football team.

In the late afternoon of Dec. 1, Vann said he approached Paiz’s house on Hartridge Street, between Price and East Broad streets, with his grandmother and uncle in tow. He knocked on his door twice, stepped back and tried to make himself visible, like he had been taught by other canvassers.

At the Monday hearing, Claiborne sought to prove their case under Stand Your Ground law by showing security video from the shooting. In it, you can hear audio that Clairborne argued was Vann using the doorknob to get into Paiz’s house.

Claiborne said Paiz was watching the security monitor as Vann “reached extensively around his waistband.” The recording shows Vann noticed the camera and removed his hoodie to make himself more visible. Behind the door, Paiz heard the “doorknob being manipulated” and fired, according to Claiborne.

“That combination of actions by Mr. Vann on that day is an unfortunate confluence of events but gave my client a reasonable fear that someone was trying to come through his door to enter his home by turning the doorknob,” Claiborne said. He also argued that Paiz purposefully shot Vann in the leg instead of more lethal options.

Vann testified he didn’t turn the doorknob and the noise was him attempting to put literature in the door.

“It’s not uncommon for people to do exactly what the victim was doing in this case,” Assistant District Attorney Harrison Pratt argued, “Canvassing areas at an election time, knocking on community members’ doors, trying to educate them about political candidates.”

Canvassing while Black?

Race was not discussed in court but was likely a factor, Vann said in the interview after the hearing.

“If it was one of my white friends who were doing it with me or one of my Asian friends, I don’t think the gunshot would have went off,” Vann said. In a letter that Paiz addressed to Vann and filed in court last year — that Vann’s mother said was never sent directly to them — Paiz claimed race was not a factor.

“I beg you, never, ever think that you were the victim because of who you are, your identity, your person — no!” Paiz wrote. “Had the events unfolded differently, you would certainly have been greeted at the door by a friend and ally, which is my lifelong shame to endure.”

Recent cases involving Black teenagers being shot for knocking on a stranger’s door, either mistakenly in the case of 17-year-old Ralph Yarl in Kansas City, Mo. last year or while lost in the case of 14-year-old Brennan Walker in Rochester Hills, Mich. in 2018, highlight the dangers Black males face for doing seemingly innocuous things.

Higher rates of gun ownership and increased surveillance in average American homes could play a role as well.

As for Vann, he said the shooting has not put a damper on his dreams of reaching the Savannah city council or serving as a U.S. Congressman for Savannah. In fact, it may have strengthened his resolve.

“It makes me feel as if there’s more that needs to be done,” Vann said.

Will he canvas for the 2024 election in November? Yes, he will, Vann said.

This story was provided by WABE content partner The Current.