What was supposed to be a fun night at the cinema in March 2019 ended with a fight inside the Washington Crown Center’s movie theater in North Franklin Township and a gun being pointed at a teenage boy moments before he was shot.
Opening statements began Monday afternoon in the trial for Chris Williams, who is accused of attacking a group of teenagers while watching the movie “Us” before he pulled out a gun and fired one shot that struck Anthony Ward in the right leg during the melee.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Schulte argued during his opening statement the teenagers were talking and engaging in horseplay during the movie, but that did not give Williams the right to point the gun at Ward’s face, who was 17 at the time of the incident.
“The penalty for horsing around in a movie theater cannot be getting shot by a stranger,” Schulte said.
But Al Lindsay, who is defending Williams, said his client was the victim in the case when he was pummeled by the group of teenagers after he approached them and demanded they be quiet. Lindsay added Williams feared for his life when he tried to leave the theater to find security and thought some of the teens were going to attack him again.
“He felt like he was fighting for his life,” Lindsay said.
Williams, 55, of Waynesburg, is charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault, along with lesser charges of terroristic threats, simple assault, reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct and harassment in connection with the shooting March 23, 2019. The jury of eight women and four men were seated Monday afternoon and listened to about an hour’s worth of opening statements, with testimony expected to begin at 12:30 p.m. today.
Schulte told the jurors that parents often worry about what may happen when they send their teenage children into the world. He said Ward had to be flown by medical helicopter to a Pittsburgh hospital following the shooting, and then return for surgery a month later to remove the bullet lodged in his right calf muscle.
“Every time you send that teenager out the front door you’re hoping they come back in one piece,” Schulte said.
Ward was with the group of five or six teenagers at the movie when they were talking loudly and changing seats, which apparently irked Williams and others in the theater.
“They were doing what teens usually do. They were talking, they were laughing, they were horsing around,” Schulte said.
That’s when Williams got out of his seat, walked up to the group and punched one of the teens in the mouth, Schulte said. After that, the group jumped Williams to protect themselves, Schulte said, and then they quickly left the theater. Williams followed them to the exit hallway and pulled a handgun out of his pocket before pointing it at Ward’s face, who was the last person in the group to leave, Schulte said.
Ward had two options at that moment, Schulte said, which were to either leave the theater and possibly get shot or confront Williams in order to wrestle the gun away. Ward and Williams began tussling in the hallway and they fell to the floor with the gun, which discharged a few moments later.
“The aggressor in this situation unequivocally was the defendant,” Schulte said.
Lindsay indicated the defense will dispute that assertion and claim Williams attempted to defend himself after he was attacked. The defense attorney said Williams asked the group to stop talking before he went to confront them, at which time one of the teens struck his arm, which caused him to reflexively punch the boy in the face. He was then beaten nearly unconscious and jammed into the movie theater seats, Lindsay said.
“He was punched, he returned a punch, and then the whole world descended on him,” Lindsay said. “He was badly, badly beaten.”
Still woozy, Williams tried to leave to get help when he saw three boys at the theater hallway entrance and thought they were going to attack him again, Lindsay said. That’s when he pulled out his gun, which Lindsay said was reasonable since he feared for his life.
“He thought, ‘My God, they’re going to kill me,’” Lindsay said of his client’s mindset at the time.
Williams, who was wearing a clear face shield attached to his eyeglasses in the courtroom as part of COVID-19 safety protocols, is expected to testify during the trial to tell his version of events from the incident.
“There’s an issue of who struck who first?” Lindsay said. “Two different versions. You’re going to have to sort this out.”
The shooting incident sparked protests and rallies in support of Ward, who is Black, because it took more than a month for Williams to be charged and arrested in the case. However, Lindsay asked the jury not to let similar protests and marches across the country in recent years calling for racial justice cloud their judgment in the case.
Williams, who is free on $100,000 unsecured bond, has been on leave as a corrections officer at SCI-Greene prison near Waynesburg since being charged.