By Clarissa Kell-Holland
Not a day goes by that Leonard W. Giddens Jr. says he doesn’t flash back to the tragic events that led to another truck driver’s death on March 31, 2003, near Whitesburg, GA.
Giddens said that what took him a lifetime to build – his family, his career, his reputation – took just seconds to tear down.
Now, nearly seven years later, Giddens said he is still plagued by all of the “what ifs” that haunt him about the path that led him to be on Highway 16, a road he had never been on before – or since – that fateful day.
On March 31, 2003, Giddens had just loaded in Jackson, GA. In an effort to avoid heavy traffic and a route that would have taken him through Atlanta, he decided to take a new route, Highway 16, that would meet up with Highway 20, which he frequently traveled.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Giddens said he first saw the driver of a white International, who appeared to be hauling sawdust, attempting to pull out onto the highway. He would later find out the driver’s name was Winford “Joe” McGatha, 33, of Polk County, GA.
As a courtesy to a fellow driver, Giddens said he “backed down traffic” to allow McGatha some time to pull out in front of him because he could tell he was “loaded heavy.”
Once McGatha pulled out and took the lead, that’s when Giddens said the situation started going downhill fast.
“He (McGatha) immediately started swerving over in the left lane for some reason,” Giddens said. “I thought to myself, ‘What is wrong with this person? ... He’s gotta be a local driver with that load of sawdust, so he can’t be sleepy. Maybe he’s sick or something.’ ”
A passing lane up ahead on the two-lane road presented Giddens with an opportunity to get around the truck. However, Giddens said McGatha swerved into oncoming traffic numerous times while driving with a cell phone pressed to his ear.
“I kept watching him and that’s when he came back over and forced me into oncoming traffic, which scared me to death,” Giddens said. “All kinds of things ran through my mind. What if something happens and I hit somebody head on? He’s not going to stop and he’s not going to say he’s the cause for it or anything.”
That’s when Giddens said he picked up his CB and heatedly told McGatha to “put down the mother-f------ telephone before you kill somebody.”
At first, Giddens said he wasn’t sure if McGatha even had his CB turned on, but he said a voice immediately replied and asked him, “Who are you talking to?” adding a racial slur.
Giddens said he replied back, “I am talking to you if you are driving that white International with the load of sawdust.”
He said McGatha got back on the CB and the slurs worsened. Giddens claims he clearly heard McGatha threaten that they kill blacks in that area.
After their initial exchange, Giddens said he decided to pull off at a roadside store, the Circle W, which he saw up ahead and off to the left. He said his hope was that the other driver would just “go on by.” However, that didn’t happen.
Once stopped, Giddens said he noticed in his mirrors that McGatha had pulled in behind him. He said McGatha then got back on the CB and said “get out of the truck,” again making a racial insult.
When he didn’t immediately comply, Giddens said he noticed McGatha grab a “long object,” which he said was “held down on the side of his leg.”
“At first, I thought this guy had a long gun and he was trying to hide it, but I still sat in my truck ’cause I didn’t want no trouble,” Giddens said. “Then when he passed in front of his truck, I started to really worry ’cause he kept coming toward me at a fast pace.”
Giddens said that just before McGatha got to the side of his truck he thought he had better get out and meet him.
Giddens said he grabbed his shotgun that he had carried with him for more than 20 years since the late ’80s. That’s when the company he previously worked for required a “shotgun escort” while hauling military freight.
“I guess we were about four or five feet from each other and I looked and he’s got a steel rod with a hook on it,” he said. “I didn’t point my gun at him, but I held it at ‘port arms’ across my chest so he could see I was armed.”
At that time, Giddens said he made a decision to “take a step back” away from McGatha. He said that was when the other trucker decided to lift his steel rod up over his head and attempt to strike him. Giddens said that’s when he made the split-second decision to protect himself and pulled the trigger.
“When he started to swing … I just pointed the gun around and shot, and it hit him in the abdomen. He staggered back and he still had the steel rod in his hand. And he started up again, and I shot him a second time and he fell,” Giddens said.
Giddens said he then went back to his truck, closed the door and reloaded his shotgun. He made two phone calls. One was to his wife, Kathy, who wasn’t home, and then he called 9-1-1 and requested they send the police and an ambulance.
He said his decision to reload his gun was based on fear. He wasn’t familiar with the area and there were no other black people at the store where the incident took place.
“I thought, well, if something happens and these people here try to hang me or drag me, I am going to do the best I can to defend myself, that’s all,” he said. “I wanted my wife to know where I was in case I went missing or something.”
He said another trucker stayed with McGatha until the police arrived. Giddens was then questioned, handcuffed and put in a police car for his “own protection.” One officer told him he was looking at aggravated assault if McGatha lived, but that if he died, he was looking at murder charges.
During the interview at the police station, Giddens said an officer received the call that McGatha had in fact died at the hospital.
In December 2003, a Carroll County, GA, jury found Giddens guilty of aggravated assault and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. However, he served nearly five years of his sentence before he was released.
While in prison and to this day, Giddens is still fighting to clear his name. He said “a lot of things went wrong” during his trial.
During the trial, Giddens said a teenage girl who lived near the Circle W testified she heard McGatha’s “dying declaration” to tell his wife and family he loved them, which he said had an emotional impact on the jury. Giddens said she convinced police she clapped her hands over him to keep him awake, even though the truck driver who stayed with McGatha testified the girl was nowhere close to the victim and that McGatha never spoke to her.
The crime scene investigator in the case failed to note in his diagram he prepared that a weapon had been found near McGatha’s body. It wasn’t until Giddens’ defense attorney questioned him about this fact that the investigator realized a crime scene video had been taken that day, which showed that a steel rod was present at the scene.
He also said the pathologist and coroner testified that Giddens must have shot McGatha a second time while he lay in the fetal position as an explanation for a wound on the left side of McGatha’s head. However, at the trial, two truck drivers testified they heard two shots and saw him fall to the ground after the second shot.
While the state admitted 20 exhibits into evidence at trial, Giddens’ attorney admitted only his manifest and logbooks into evidence at the trial.
At that point, Giddens said the damage had already been done.
Giddens’ attorney, Gerald P. “Jerry” Word sent Land Line this statement about the case. “My understanding from talking to jurors is that they agreed that the first shot, which was the fatal shot, was in self defense. However, they also felt that the second shot was excessive.”
Words of wisdom
Until that fateful day, Giddens said he didn’t realize how much the times had changed since he first started driving truck as a teenager back in Tallahassee, FL.
He said back in the day other drivers could take criticism and there weren’t nearly the number of road rage incidents as there are now.
While Giddens said he won’t ever hit the open highway in a truck again, he has some words of wisdom to share with other drivers who may face similar situations.
“If you see someone and they are doing something they know is wrong that requires the law, call the law. Don’t try to say anything to the driver yourself,” he said. “Times are just not like they were 30 years ago when you could tell a driver, ‘hey, you shouldn’t do that,’ and they would say thanks and go on.
“The man is gone and I am sorry for that, but I didn’t have a choice in that,” he said. “What people think of me still matters to me,” Giddens said.
The image of McGatha’s mother’s face during the trial still haunts Giddens every day.
“It just tore me apart to see that lady. I still have concern for his family,” he said. “Every day I see this. It never goes away.” LL
Editor’s note: Leonard Giddens Jr. grew up in Florida and learned trucking during his years with the U.S. Army. He joined OOIDA in 1995. He is now a life member and lives in Lexington, NC.