Though it is more than a year from going to trial, the death penalty case against a Peach County electrician accused of gunning down a pair of sheriff’s deputies there took an interesting and unusual turn this week.
The alleged killer’s defense team raised questions — be they valid in this case or not — about violent crime, race and how it is that prosecutors deem it necessary to seek the ultimate punishment for murderers in some cases and not in others.
In Macon alone — where prosecutors have seldom pursued capital punishment in the last three decades — since the beginning of 2013, of the 100 or so homicide victims, more than 80 have been black. None of those cases has generated a death-penalty prosecution.
Only one Bibb case — the 2012 slaying of legal secretary Gail Spencer, a white woman — led the DA’s office to seek the death penalty against two of her killers. The pair later pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life without parole. The other case in the Macon circuit that has prompted death-penalty prosecution is the one at hand, in which Peach sheriff’s deputies Daryl Smallwood and Patrick Sondron were attacked on Nov. 6, 2016.
As pretrial proceedings in Fort Valley wound down late Monday afternoon, one of the lawyers for Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr., the man who allegedly shot and fatally wounded Smallwood and Sondron in his yard on the outskirts of Byron, called Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney David Cooke to the stand.
By then, defense lawyers in the case, which is set to go on trial in the spring of next year, had begun winding down their arguments in a string of pretrial motions. Their arguments, part of the oft-arduous, necessary and sometimes-years-long process of making sure a capital case is ready for trial, centered on a number of matters. Some were routine. Others were not.
On Monday, Elrod’s defense team spent more than half an hour citing 65 murder indictments in cases that Cooke’s offices in Peach, Crawford and Bibb counties have sought since January 2013, when Cooke became the DA. The victims in those cases were mostly black people.
When Cooke was called to the stand to presumably answer questions about the apparent disparity, the state objected to having him testify.
“This was sprung on me at the last minute, without any notice,” Cooke told Judge Edgar W. Ennis Jr.
When proceedings resumed about midday Tuesday, prosecutors again balked at having Cooke testify. They argued that he cannot be compelled to testify in the matter or be forced to defend a decision to pursue capital punishment, and that the reasons for seeking death in Elrod’s case are akin to others in which cops were attacked and killed in “unprovoked, cold-blooded” assaults.
Prosecutors also cited one of the statutory aggravating circumstances that allow the state to seek the death penalty, that being the slaying of police officers in the line of duty.
One of Elrod’s attorneys, Franklin J. Hogue, however, insisted that, at least in part, “this case is based on the race of the victims.”
“I’ve got over 50 other indictments which also had statutory aggravating circumstances, but for which he did not seek the death penalty,” Hogue went on. “Might (the reason) be the race of the victim?”
Hogue said that “in no way” was he suggesting that Cooke should seek the death penalty more often.
“We’re happy that he seeks it as seldom as he does,” Hogue said.
He also said the defense team was in no way diminishing “the worth of those two police officers” with their argument.
“We say,” Hogue said, “that it’s unconstitutional to value the lives of any victims in a murder case more or less than others.”
The judge will likely rule on the motions when hearings resume in early April.