It was a few minutes past 9 Thursday morning when Bibb County Superior Court Judge Howard Simms’ courtroom came to order.
The place was mostly empty except for a few bailiffs, a sheriff’s deputy, a lawyer or three and two young men in jailhouse jumpsuits.
One of the latter, a 19-year-old named Markel Devonte Parks, was about to be sentenced for his role at the scene of a deadly gang shooting in east Macon nearly two years ago.
With his attorney at his side, Parks shuffled over and stood before Simms, who hears the county’s most serious criminal cases.
Since ascending to the bench four years ago, the bespectacled, Van Dyke-bearded Simms, a former district attorney, has cultivated a frank, hard-boiled style when addressing the guilty.
It seems word of Simms’ reputation for stern admonishment of the convicted would have made its way to the county lockup by now. It would also seem that inmates on their way to prison or -- for the fortunate -- probation, might have heard that you best speak up when Simms gives you the floor. Otherwise, look out. Scoldings await.
So have something to say for yourself. And say it clearly. Don’t mutter or hem and haw or downplay the severity of your transgression, nor your role in it. Own what you did and let the chips fall.
Thursday morning, Parks, an 11th-grade dropout, was about to endure what happens when one fails to heed said advice.
Parks was pleading guilty to violating the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act late one night in April 2013.
John James Johnson III, an 18-year-old affiliated with a rival gang, rode up at the wrong house party on Forsyth Avenue, a Fort Hill back street midway between Emery Highway and Shurling Drive.
An associate of Parks’ named Bernard Bullard was also there. Bullard, 25, opened fire with a handgun. Johnson was in a car trying to leave when a bullet pierced the windshield and struck him in the head. Johnson later died.
Last year, Parks testified at Bullard’s murder trial. Bibb District Attorney David Cooke said Parks’ testimony “was crucial in securing Bullard’s conviction and getting justice for Johnson’s family.”
Simms sentenced Bullard to life in prison without parole. In doing so, the judge told Bullard that locals were fed up with “the killing, the shooting and the dying. ... They’re tired of it, and so am I.”
Now it was Parks’ turn to be judged.
According to prosecutors, he too had fired a shot that night -- after Bullard did. But Parks’ round was akin to a warning shot. Murder and aggravated assault charges against Parks were dropped in exchange for his plea to the lesser gang charge.
After prosecutor DeShayla Dixon read a synopsis of the case in court, time came for Parks to say a few words on his own behalf.
“What you want to tell me, Mr. Parks?” Simms said.
“I’ve got nothing to say,” Parks said in a mumble.
“You’ve got nothing to say?” Simms asked.
“You’ve been sitting in jail now for two years, right?” the judge said.
“Yes sir,” Parks whispered.
“Charged with murder, right?”
“And you’ve got nothing to say?”
“I just ...” Parks said as his lawyer, Kevin Bradley, intervened.
“Judge, Mr. Parks isn’t very eloquent,” Bradley said. “I generally tell him to let me do the talking. He did not say anything amiss.”
Simms said he realized that. The judge paused a beat, but didn’t let Parks off the hook.
“I need to hear something from Mr. Parks,” Simms said. “Mr. Parks, do you know what happened to Mr. Bullard?”
“What was that?”
“He got life.”
“He got life without parole,” Simms said. “I take a real dim view of what happened out at that house that night. And in my considered judgment, you’re real lucky.”
Parks was lucky because he would be going home soon.
Sentenced to time served and 10 years of strict gang-crime probation, he would also be ordered to make a video for local cops warning children about the ills of gangs.
Simms said, “It’s not gonna mean a lot, though, for you to go and talk to these kids about where you screwed up if you don’t understand where you screwed up. ... Do you understand that?”
“Yes sir,” Parks said.
“You’re gonna have to explain it to them,” Simms went on. “Can you explain it to me?”
Parks said something about getting himself “in that position.”
He spoke so softly it was difficult to hear him.
His lawyer stepped in again: “Mr. Parks is very, very nervous when he has to speak.”
“I understand,” Simms said, “but he’s gonna have to explain this to people. So why not start now?”
Parks tried again. What he said wasn’t clear.
Simms asked him, “What are you gonna do when you get out?”
“Get my GED,” Parks said.
“Well, it’s a good start,” Simms said.
The judge reminded him that to fulfill the terms of his sentence, Parks was going to have to explain to kids where his life went awry.
“Not just what happened that night,” Simms said, “but what got you there. The why.”
Parks said he understood.
“Good luck,” the judge said.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.