Death penalty no longer on the table for any Houston County Superior Court case

bpurser@macon.comOctober 8, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- The death penalty is no longer on the table for any Houston County Superior Court case.

All but two of the death penalty cases that were pending in late January in Superior Court have since been resolved. In the remaining two cases that are pending trial, the death penalty is off the table.

District Attorney George Hartwig inherited all but one of the former death penalty cases when he took office in December 2010.

He said he feels good about the disposition of the cases, noting most have been convictions.

Also, in the sole case in which he initiated seeking the death penalty but later withdrew it, Hartwig said that person will be incarcerated for the rest of his life. The co-conspirators in that murder also went to prison, including one who also received a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Hartwig said.

“You have to look at and reserve the death penalty for the most heinous cases,” he said. “You have to be selective and not throw it around.”

But in the single case that was dismissed, family members believe justice was not served.

In another older case in which the death penalty is no longer being sought, the victim’s sister believes the accused still deserves death. The suspect’s attorneys are seeking to have that case thrown out of court.

Hartwig said a lot factors came into play when reviewing the cases he inherited. He said he’s obligated to review each case, consider the facts and then make the decision that he believes is best for each.

“Ultimately, it’s my decision to make,” Hartwig said. “I’m the one who has to live with it.”

Here’s a look at the cases that once involved the death penalty.

Murder-for-hire

The sole case in which Hartwig himself filed notice to seek the death penalty was that involving 30-year-old Richard Sybert of Warner Robins.

Sybert, the convicted shooter, pleaded guilty Aug. 29 to the murder-for-hire of 47-year-old Joni Clements in her Warner Robins home in February 2011. His life sentence without the possibility of parole was the result of a plea agreement. The agreement called for withdrawal of the death penalty in exchange for his testimony against the victim’s husband and subsequent guilty plea.

Co-conspirator Eddy Clements, 56, the husband, was convicted of arranging the murder of his wife after a jury trial and received life without the possibility of parole. Robert Sybert, 54, the getaway driver, the shooter’s father and Clements’ friend, was sentenced to 30 years for a reduced charge of attempted murder and other related convictions. Although not facing the death penalty, he also reached a plea agreement in exchange for testimony against Clements and subsequent guilty plea.

Joni Clements’ sister, Tomi Roeske, of Norfolk, Va., said the plea agreement was a win-win. It secured Richard Sybert’s testimony against Clements, guaranteed Sybert would go to prison for the rest of his life and removed the uncertainty of another trial for the Clements’ two adult children, she said.

Clements, who maintains his innocence, has filed a motion for a new trial.

Killed for a car

One of the two cases still pending is that of Stewart Brannon, 23, of Eatonton. He’s accused of malice and felony murder in the 2008 shooting of 25-year-old school maintenance worker Mario Smith for his red 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Co-defendant Joshua Dupree Rounsoville, 24, also of Eatonton, the convicted shooter, is now serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole in Smith’s death. Brannon is the accused lookout.

Both Brannon and Rounsoville had faced the death penalty in the slaying. Rounsoville struck a deal for his sentence and pleaded guilty in March. In May, Brannon also made a deal with prosecutors for the death penalty to come off the table.

The agreement calls for the judge to consider two possible sentences for Brannon should he be convicted of Smith’s murder when the case goes to trial. The sentences are life in prison without the possibility of parole and life in prison with the possibility of parole.

A 28-year-old case

The other pending case is that of 50-year-old Timothy Johnson of Warner Robins. He remains jailed in Houston County after the Georgia Supreme Court vacated his decades-old murder conviction in 2006, and he was reindicted for the slaying of convenience store clerk Taressa Stanley during an armed robbery in 1984.

Johnson pleaded guilty to murder and armed robbery in Houston County Superior Court in 1984. But the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Johnson didn’t understand his right not to incriminate himself and to question witnesses when he entered his guilty plea.

Since murder has no statute of limitations, Johnson was reindicted June 6, 2006, by a Houston County grand jury. A notice to seek the death penalty was filed the same month but was withdrawn April 18.

Stacey F. Morris and Ricky W. Morris, McDonough attorneys who are representing Johnson, are seeking to have the new case against Johnson dismissed, arguing his constitutional rights to a speedy trial have been violated. Johnson now says he’s innocent.

Johnson recently rejected a plea offer, the details of which were not disclosed publicly. A notice of appeal has been filed with the Georgia Supreme Court.

Prosecutors are reviewing the case to determine what evidence still exits and whether key witnesses are still alive and able to testify, Hartwig said. What that review reveals is expected to determine what happens to the case, he said.

In spite of those developments, Deborah Pratt, of Warner Robins, said Johnson should pay with his life for her sister’s death. At the very least, she said, he should remain incarcerated for the rest of his life.

“He shot my sister, and she’ll never come back,” Pratt said. “I don’t think he should ever go home to his family.”

A case dismissed

Erik Mize once faced the death penalty after he was charged with murder in the stabbing death of Felicia L. Hardman, a 29-year-old mother of two who was killed inside her Vernon Drive home Aug. 1, 2006.

A notice to seek the death penalty for the 37-year-old Mize in Hardman’s murder was withdrawn July 11, after an agreement was reached between the prosecution and the defense. The agreement called for the death penalty to come off the table in exchange for a sentence of life in prison with or without the possibility of parole if convicted at trial. On Sept. 28, the charges of murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery and possession of a knife during a crime against Mize in connection with Hardman’s slaying were dismissed in Houston County Superior Court.

Mize is currently serving a life sentence for an unrelated sexual assault.

“There is insufficient evidence at this time to prove (Mize’s) guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” the dismissal notice states.

Robert Yerby, of Warner Robins, and Hardman had been together for nearly a dozen years at her 2006 death and had a son together. Yerby said he’s disappointed about the dismissal and doesn’t believe justice has been served. But he doesn’t blame Hartwig and isn’t pointing fingers.

Hardman’s daughter, 18-year-old Angel Young, doesn’t believe the death penalty should have ever come off the table -- much less a dismissal of all charges.

“I want him to suffer like he made my mom to suffer,” said Young, who was 12 when her mother was killed.

Hartwig said he was not ready to take the case to trial with court hearings pending. Rather than waste the court’s time and still not be ready for trial, Hartwig said he chose to dismiss the case knowing he can always reindict the case in the future.

“We will see,” Hartwig said when asked whether the case realistically would ever be reindicted.

Videographer’s death

In July, 29-year-old Eugene “Cash” Leslie, 29, received a life sentence after jurors found him guilty of the murder of 32-year-old Jason Wade.

Wade, a former WMAZ videographer, was shot to death in a Warner Robins apartment in August 2008 after he kicked out Leslie and his girlfriend.

The case was pending trial in January, but the death penalty had previously come off the table Sept. 7, 2011.

Child starvation

In January, a mother and father accused of starving their 2-year-old son, D’Shawn Davis, to death were facing trial. Hartwig already had decided not to seek the death penalty by then. The previous district attorney had indicted both parents with the appropriate legal language within the indictment to allow for the filing of a death penalty notice -- with that decision to fall to whomever won the then-pending election for district attorney.

William Thomas Davis III, 27, the father, was found guilty at trial May 17 of involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct in the child’s death. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with credit for two years served while awaiting trial.

All other charges of malice murder, felony murder, cruelty to children and aggravated battery were dismissed.

Sade Shamon King, 24, the mother, was previously sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to felony murder and cruelty to children May 3. She will be eligible for parole after 30 years.

King testified during Davis’ trial that he never saw the boy and did not know about his condition in the nearly five weeks leading up to his death. She testified Davis worked long hours at a paint and body shop in Warner Robins -- leaving early in the morning and coming home late without seeing the boy.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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