Crime

Jurors ‘needed to hear that we wanted the death penalty,’ father of slain deputy says

Attorney pleads for jury's mercy for deputy killer

Gabrielle Pittman pleaded with jurors during her closing argument in the sentencing phase of the trial for Christopher Keith Calmer, the man found guilty of fatally shooting Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputy Michael Norris in 2014. Pittman sho
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Gabrielle Pittman pleaded with jurors during her closing argument in the sentencing phase of the trial for Christopher Keith Calmer, the man found guilty of fatally shooting Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputy Michael Norris in 2014. Pittman sho

Jurors in Christopher Keith Calmer’s death penalty trial never heard Michael Norris’ family or friends say they wanted Calmer to die for his crimes.

Norris, a 24-year-old Monroe County sheriff’s deputy, was fatally shot in 2014 at the threshold of Calmer’s parents’ home. He and deputy Jeff Wilson had gone there after receiving a report of a suicidal person.

Jurors took just 30 minutes to find Calmer guilty of murder and a string of other crimes stemming from the shooting. A day later, it took them just half an hour to sentence him to life without the possibility of parole.

Bennett Norris, the slain deputy’s father, said he’s almost positive jurors would have reached a different decision if they’d heard his son’s family and friends say they wanted Calmer to get a death sentence.

“They didn’t know how we felt about it,” he said. “They needed to hear that we wanted the death penalty.”

Due to the law, witnesses who delivered victim impact statements during the penalty phase of Calmer’s trial were barred from commenting on a possible sentence, although Calmer’s family and friends were allowed to plead with jurors to spare his life.

At one point the jury actually was split 9-3 in favor of the death penalty, Jonathan Adams, district attorney of the Towaliga Judicial Circuit, said he’s learned. In order to sentence Calmer to death, the jury’s decision had to be unanimous.

During jury selection, a number of potential jurors were removed from the pool because they said they could not consider all three sentencing options — life, life without the possibility of parole and death — as the law requires, Adams said.

“It wasn’t them saying we cannot support the death penalty, showing some kind of changing trend in America,” he said. “We lost 2-1 more jurors because they either felt that the only appropriate sentence was the death penalty, or they could not consider life with parole.

“It makes it hard getting a jury that is able to be strong toward those harsher punishments,” Adams said.

He said he thinks lawmakers should consider a change that removes a life-with-parole sentence from the list of options in cases involving a police officer’s killing and other “heinous” crimes.

It’s been more than three years since a Georgia jury has handed down a death sentence.

Two other men charged in Middle Georgia cop killings are waiting on their death penalty trials to begin.

Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr. is charged in the Nov. 6, 2016, fatal shooting of Peach County deputies Daryl Smallwood and Sgt. Patrick Sondron. In Dodge County, Royheem Delshawn Deeds is charged in the Aug. 13, 2016, killing of Eastman police officer Timothy Kevin Smith.

It’s unclear whether the death penalty will be sought against Ricky Dubose and Donnie Russell Rowe, the prison inmates who escaped from a prison bus June 13 after fatally shooting corrections officers Curtis Billue and Christopher Monica.

‘God will give us peace’

Talking with The Telegraph on Friday, Norris said Calmer’s sentence — life without the possibility of parole — isn’t true punishment. He can still read books and talk with his mother, as he did while in jail awaiting trial.

“He got a slap on the hand,” the slain deputy’s father said.

Long before his son was killed, Norris felt a person’s penalty should match the crime.

“I feel like our whole society has gone off the tracks,” Norris said. “The consequence (Calmer) got is not what was deserved.”

The death penalty should be the mandatory sentence for someone who ambushes and kills a police officer and could serve as a deterrent for others who might one day consider doing the same, he said.

“Until we get where we are responsible for our actions, things will continue to get worse,” Norris said.

He praised the team that prosecuted the case, and he said he’s thankful for all the community support his family has received.

Looking toward Sunday, his third Father’s Day without his son, Norris said, “I’ll never get to talk to my son again. It’s something that will never go away.”

His family is trying to find a new normal.

“God will give us peace.”

One day, Calmer, like everyone, will have to answer for his life, he said.

“When he meets his maker, he’ll have to deal with it.”

Amy Leigh Womack: 478-744-4398, @awomackmacon

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