State rejected guilty plea from man facing death in ‘ambush’ killing of midstate cop

Judge addresses accused killer of Monroe County deputy

Christopher Keith Calmer was in court Friday in Monroe County. He faces a death penalty trial next year in the 2014 slaying of Monroe sheriff's deputy Michael Norris.
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Christopher Keith Calmer was in court Friday in Monroe County. He faces a death penalty trial next year in the 2014 slaying of Monroe sheriff's deputy Michael Norris.

Legal arguments in the run-up to next summer’s scheduled death penalty trial for a Monroe County man accused of murdering a sheriff’s deputy two years ago continued Friday.

In a region that in recent days and months has seen more than half a dozen law enforcement officers shot dead, proceedings in the shooting death of Monroe sheriff’s deputy Michael Norris were another reminder of the perils for those who wear the badge.

The proceedings in Monroe Superior Court also raised a question: Should Christopher Keith Calmer face a death penalty prosecution, at least in part, because his alleged victim is a cop?

Lawyers for Calmer, who is accused in Norris’ 2014 slaying, contend that prosecutors in the Towaliga Circuit, which Monroe County has been a part of for about a decade and a half, have, at least in recent history, never taken a death penalty prosecution to trial.

Murderers in Monroe County have certainly on occasion been executed, but a trial with capital punishment as a possible sentence hasn’t been held since the county became part of the Towaliga Circuit, which includes neighboring Butts and Lamar counties.

One of Calmer’s attorneys, Gabrielle Amber Pittman, asked the court during Friday’s pretrial motions hearing, “What is the difference in this case and every other murder case that has come through the Towaliga Circuit since it’s been in existence?”

Though Georgia’s capital punishment law specifically mentions the murder of peace officers in the line of duty as one factor that can prompt a death penalty prosecution, Pittman said “the law should be applied equally ... not just (for) some victims in the circuit.”

The “status of the victim in the community” should not set the case apart, she said.

“Frankly, the state’s duty is to more than represent the people. It is to seek justice. And sometimes justice is hard, and sometimes justice makes people mad,” Pittman said, her voice rising to a shrill. “And sometimes justice upsets people.”

She later mentioned “the arbitrariness in which the death penalty is being sought,” and said “this particular case is not clearly ... something that is much more severe than every other murder in the circuit.”

That contention appeared to draw a scoff from someone in the courtroom gallery, where a few members of Norris’ family were seated.

Calmer, a 49-year-old former computer-tech worker who suffered from chronic back and neck pain, was living with his parents near Bolingbroke in September 2014 when he allegedly gunned down Norris and seriously wounded deputy Jeff Wilson when the officers answered a call at the Calmer house.

Pittman revealed in court Friday that before prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty for Calmer he had offered to plead guilty.

“And accept death in prison — life without parole,” she said, “and the state has refused to engage ... in plea negotiations.”

Prosecutor Scott Johnston stood to respond.

“Good-faith plea negotiation does not mean that the defense gets what it wants,” Johnston said.

Johnston said Calmer’s lawyers have previously contended that the fatal shooting happened while he was “coming down or suffering withdrawals from” the pain medication tramodol.

“The state,” Johnston said, “tends to see this case an as ambush of this man against two police officers. One was killed almost immediately, before he could say a word. The other was shot while trying to get back to his vehicle. ... We have negotiated. ... And we believe the proper sentence is death.”

Judge Tommy Wilson did not rule on the arguments Friday.

Calmer’s trial is set for June.

Joe Kovac Jr.: 478-744-4397, @joekovacjr