Slain Bibb deputy's sister to Jolly: 'You deserved to die'

jkovac@macon.comNovember 13, 2012 

The dead sheriff’s deputy’s family would have its say, but the killer spoke first.

Damon Jolly sat before a judge in Bibb County Superior Court on Tuesday and said he wasn’t some cold-blooded cop killer.

He begged forgiveness. He said he was “truly, truly sorry.” He broke down in tears. He said he hadn’t meant to shoot a lawman. He even said he was sorry to his mother, who died last month, saying he wanted her to know it wasn’t her fault he ended up “in this situation.”

Jolly, 27, admitted being the armed marijuana dealer who gunned down a Bibb County drug agent in early 2006. He pleaded guilty to that and was sentenced to life in prison, avoiding a trial later this month that could have landed him on death row.

But he didn’t want to go away without getting something off his chest -- and, later, asking something of his victim’s family.

Given the chance at his plea hearing, Jolly apologized over and over for shooting and killing deputy Joseph Whitehead.

Whitehead, 36, who had been serving a search warrant in the middle of the night with other drug cops, burst into the Macon drug house where Jolly and his buddies hung out.

“I do not want anyone to get the impression that I am up here pleading guilty to being a cold-blooded cop killer or as a person who does not care or has no respect for life, because that is not the case,” Jolly, who was 20 at the time, read from a statement.

“This was not intentional in no kind of way. ... If I had known that those was officers coming into that house that night ... I would never have fired that weapon. ... The only reason I fired that weapon was because I was protecting myself and the others, and I was in fear of losing my life. And God knows that’s the honest truth.”

* * *

Jolly’s guilty plea brings to a close a high-profile case that has languished for more than half a decade while he sat, untried, in the county jail.

Whitehead’s killing, as with those of most law enforcement officers, drew widespread attention and scrutiny of “no-knock” warrants, which police use to try to surprise drug dealers.

“It’s been a long, emotional time for the (Whitehead) family, for the officers that were there that morning (he was killed),” Sheriff Jerry Modena said. “Joe was an exceptional officer. He’s been well-missed. ... It’s been a hard six-and-a-half years.”

Attorneys in the case had been talking about a possible plea deal for a while, but there were always hang-ups. Negotiations had essentially shut down. Then last week, Jolly’s attorneys called and said that he was willing to plead guilty to the slaying.

For years, Jolly was not willing to admit responsibility for the killing. That was the biggest hurdle to a plea deal.

“He was willing to plead guilty to other things, but I was not willing to accept that,” District Attorney Greg Winters said.

For a time Jolly was willing to plead guilty to drug charges and, later, manslaughter -- but not murder -- until last week.

This was after a firearms-and-ballistics expert working for Jolly’s defense team reached the same conclusion that prosecutors had: Jolly’s gun fired the fatal shot.

“We had very little choice,” Jolly’s attorney Jeff Grube said of the development. “And it took us all a while to come to grips with that, especially Damon. Because we had been talking to him for months about it.”

“Like some of the witnesses said, today’s day is not about him. It’s about the Whitehead family. We agree with that,” Grube said. “But I will tell you that Damon has always been remorseful for what has happened. He’s always been saddened. ... We were hoping that this day would come where he would let us bring him in front of the court to see if we could get something resolved or not. I think we’re all pleased with the way that it turned out.”

Winters said he didn’t agree to the offer immediately. He wanted to talk to family members and to law enforcement officers to gauge their thoughts about the prospect of a deal. So, on Thursday and Friday, those calls went out.

“I wanted them to be able to think about it,” Winters said. By later Friday, everyone was “on board” with a plea deal.

Was Tuesday’s outcome just?

The question, he said, “is hard for me to answer.”

“The just thing would be to go back in time and have him with us,” Winters said of Whitehead.

Even if Jolly had gone to trial and been sentenced to death, “it’s not going to bring a son back. It’s not going to bring a husband back. It’s not going to bring a brother back,” Winters said. “Some people will say yes. Some people will say no.”

Tuesday’s plea does bring a conclusion. There will be no trial, and the family will be spared details of the night Whitehead died.

“If I didn’t think at the end of the day that it was a good resolution that the family was made a part of, I would not have done it,” Winters said.

A life sentence without the possibility of parole was not an option in the case. The law did not provide for that penalty at the time of the crime.

Jolly must serve a minimum of 14 years in prison before he is eligible to seek parole.

* * *

In court Tuesday, Jolly was clean cut. The dreadlocks he’d worn since going to jail as a 20-year-old were gone.

He said what pains him most is knowing Whitehead’s three children will grow up without their father.

“All I could think about was how hard my mother had to work to provide for me and my sister as a single parent,” he said.

Addressing Whitehead’s mother and sister -- his wife and children didn’t attend the proceeding -- Jolly said, “I wanted to reach out to you all a long time ago. But I didn’t know how to go about doing that. I knew you all would need some time before you would even want to hear from me or if you even want to hear from me at all, which is understandable. ... But I don’t want you to think that because you haven’t heard from me that I haven’t had no remorse, ... because I have.”

Then he asked his big question.

“My main question,” as he put it. “Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?”

* * *

On March 15, 2006, Jolly and Antron Fair, his then-roommate, had gone into Macon Pawn and Gun, less than a mile out Mercer University Drive from their dope house, and picked out a pair of guns.

Jolly chose a 9 mm semiautomatic “machine pistol” with a 32-round magazine.

Fair later told investigators they bought the guns for protection from a gang called the Westside Mafia, which they worried might come after their cash, their drugs -- or them.

The house at 3135 Atherton St. where they peddled crack cocaine and a pound or so of marijuana a week sits on a dead end at the western edge of the Unionville neighborhood. It lies just north of Henderson Stadium’s back side, one vacant lot west of a food mart at intersection of Mercer University Drive and Columbus Road. In the 1990s, a gang named itself after the store: the Kitchen Pride Thugs.

But soon after 1:15 a.m. on March 23, 2006, eight days after they bought the weapons, it was the police who came calling.

The first man through the door, leading a nine-man entry team, was Joe Whitehead, a New Jersey-born father of three.

The dope house, which had been rented three months earlier, wasn’t anyone’s home. Jolly and Fair lived across town in Riverside Garden Apartments.

Fair, who has pleaded guilty to his role in the slaying, began selling pot at age 14. He has told authorities that Jolly mostly dealt crack from the Atherton house, that in the months leading up to Whitehead’s slaying, Jolly sold the cocaine at night after he got off work at a car dealership. Jolly, however, contends he only sold marijuana.

Investigators say the Atherton house was also used for lounging around, shooting pool, playing video games and having sex. A man who lived across the street at the time said the young men “made a club out of it.”

Just before midnight on the night of the raid, Jolly, Fair, Thomas M. Porter Jr. and a young woman named Cynthia Greene drank beer and smoked weed.

They played pool, ate takeout from Steak & Shake and watched basketball on TV in a back bedroom.

Fair said he had stuck around because Porter had passed out in another room and Fair didn’t want to leave Jolly there alone. A surveillance-camera system that the dealers obtained from street junkies had been set up to let the dealers see who was coming to their door. But at the time of the raid, according to court documents, no one was watching the monitors, and the room the suspects were in didn't have a monitor.

After 1 a.m., there was a “boom” at the front door. Fair says he heard footsteps. Greene hit the floor. Jolly, in a chair by the bed, which Fair was stretched out on, grabbed his pistol from the bed.

“I just heard a loud noise and then I just, when I looked, I just seen, just seen somebody running this way and I just heard a gun fire. Before I know, I had done fired ’bout two times,” Jolly told Macon police detectives immediately after the shooting.

“After I shot, I seen a dude laying on the ground. I seen a ... he was holding a gun and that’s when I just dropped the gun and that’s when I knew it was the police. So I just got on the ground and ... he just came and put me on the bed, put the handcuffs on me.”

Whitehead was shot five times. Four bullets wounded his hands and wrists. A fifth, though, fired by Jolly, proved fatal. The bullet hit Whitehead’s left cheek and tore into his right lung, lodging in the back of his rib cage. He died of internal bleeding.

Inside the house, police found 48 pieces of crack cocaine and 41 small baggies of marijuana.

* * *

So do Whitehead’s loved ones forgive Jolly?

Marshall Hughes, Whitehead’s best friend, sure didn’t seem to.

When he addressed the court he seethed and all but scolded Jolly, referring to the killer, often emphatically, as “Mister Jolly!”

Hughes read a letter from Whitehead’s widow, Jacqueline. In it, she called Whitehead “my rock ... an awesome husband and father.”

She vowed not to let Jolly take “a day, a minute or a second” away from her three children’s lives.

“Mister Jolly!” Hughes said, his voice booming as he read the widow’s letter, “you took away Joseph Timothy Whitehead Jr. from me and his kids ... but his spirit lives on in them.”

Then in his words, Hughes spoke of Jolly’s “cowardly and a very selfish act.”

Hughes, at times crying, told Jolly, “You wouldn’t understand my pain because you still have life. ... Not facing the death penalty is the easy way out.”

As for that apology, Hughes said, “I heard your words. Your words can’t replace my best friend.”

Then it was Whitehead’s sister’s turn.

Lisa Whitehead told of the “endless agony” she endures, of how hearing her brother was dead was “like someone was ripping my heart out through the soles of my feet.”

“I know that you said that you were sorry,” she told Jolly.

“Today I don’t think I can still accept that. There is still so much pain in my heart. And, yes, it was very cowardly of you to not want to face the death penalty, because you know ... you deserved to die.”

Forgiveness?

“I am going to let God make that call,” she said.

Telegraph staff writers Oby Brown and Phillip Ramati contributed to this report.

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