(from the New York Times 3/12/13)

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — Deanne Westbrook had tried everything to keep her husband, Ronald, in the house.

He was 72. Alzheimer’s had erased much of his talent for music and flying airplanes.

No one is sure how, in the frigid hours before dawn last Wednesday in this small north Georgia community near the Tennessee border, Mr. Westbrook ended up nearly three miles from home with a handful of other people’s mail, jiggling Joe Hendrix’s doorknob.

Mr. Hendrix, 34, stepped onto his porch with a Glock pistol in his hand and his fiancée inside on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. He fired four shots. One hit Mr. Westbrook in the chest.

On a cold and damp day Tuesday, Mrs. Westbrook buried her husband of 51 years, his death adding another chapter to the debate over the nation’s patchwork of self-defense laws.

“I understand the man who shot him is real upset, and I think he should be,” Mrs. Westbrook said in an interview. “He shot an innocent man. He should have stayed in the house like a normal person would.”

Investigators and a district attorney are weighing whether to charge Mr. Hendrix, a decision that exposes the challenge of balancing the right to use deadly force to defend oneself with the imperfect reality of snap decisions.

Unlike a case last month in Michigan when a white man shot a young black woman on his porch and the closely followed case of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year, this one had no racial overtones. Both men were white.

The legal issue revolves around the question of how scared was Mr. Hendrix — a young man who had just moved into the quiet neighborhood with his fiancée — in those early hours.

According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Sheriff Steve Wilson of Walker County, a sheriff’s deputy first encountered Mr. Westbrook about 2:30 a.m. the day he died.

In the confusion that comes from Alzheimer’s, Mr. Westbrook had taken to collecting the mail from neighbors’ mailboxes. He was doing so that night on Marbletop Road, which is a mile or so from his home. He told the deputy he lived in a nearby house, which at one time, years ago, he had.

“Better get home,” the deputy said. “It’s cold.”

The deputy drove on, and Mr. Westbrook, in a straw hat and a jacket too light for the weather, continued walking with his dogs.

Just before 4 a.m., he was nearly three miles from home in the subdivision of modest new houses where Mr. Hendrix lives, near Chattanooga.

Mr. Hendrix, a veteran of the Iraq war who last year served as the spokesman for a Republican candidate for Congress from Tennessee, Scottie Mayfield, did not return calls seeking an interview.

At least twice, Mr. Westbrook climbed onto the small porch, tried to open the door and rang the doorbell, Sheriff Wilson said. Dogs were barking. The police were called.

The sheriff and Mr. Westbrook had played together in their church’s orchestra. Mr. Westbrook had been a skilled trumpet player, retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel.

Sheriff Wilson said he wished Mr. Hendrix had just stayed inside. But he knows it was a tense situation.

“When you listen to the 911 calls, it’s evident to me that there was fear displayed at least by the female who lived there,” he said.

As Mr. Westbrook came around a corner of the house, Mr. Hendrix took his gun and repeatedly called for him to identify himself, he told the police. Then he fired the shots. Mr. Hendrix told investigators that Mr. Westbrook continued to approach him, so he fired the shot into his chest.

Deputies were six minutes away.

“When we sat down and told him the age of the victim and the diagnosis, he broke down and became emotional,” Sheriff Wilson said.

Within two weeks, investigators will meet with Herbert Franklin, the district attorney, to decide if Mr. Hendrix will face charges.

Mr. Franklin is already weighing another so-called Stand Your Ground case. Earlier in November, a 69-year-old man in neighboring Catoosa County came home to find two teenagers trying to break into his house. He shot one in the neck, a 17-year-old boy who died at the hospital.

In both cases, Mr. Franklin will be guided by what legal experts call the “reasonable person” standard as outlined in the state’s 2006 self-defense law.

“In order to use deadly force, you have to reasonably believe you are in imminent danger,” said the Gwinnett County district attorney, Danny Porter. “You weigh whether the homeowner can show he was in fear of receiving death or great bodily injury.”

Nearly two dozen states have some version of a Stand Your Ground law, and their popularity continues to grow. The Ohio House of Representatives last month approved a bill that, like many, would remove the need for a person to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense.

Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law was recently challenged by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, whose leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, came to the state in early November to announce a lawsuit against Gov. Nathan Deal and the state attorney general.

Citing two recent cases, Mr. Jackson argued that the state’s law was being unequally applied to whites and blacks.

Mr. Westbrook’s death shows the continuing controversy over the law, even here in a part of the country where gun ownership is treated as a cherished right.

Chris Brown, 50, who lives down the street from the Westbrooks, supports Stand Your Ground laws. He is well-armed and not afraid to pull out a gun if someone broke into his home or tried to steal his truck.

“But if he’s out in my yard and I’ve done called the cops, I’m waiting for the cops,” he said. “What that guy did wasn’t Stand Your Ground.”

Mr. Westbrook’s widow herself is not sure that Mr. Hendrix should be charged.

“I don’t know what his mind-set was, and I don’t know enough about the law to know,” Mrs. Westbrook said. “But that’s all over now. His life is already taken. He took the life of a real gentle man, and it’s a crying shame.”

Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta.