On a Saturday afternoon in mid-September of 2015, while jurors in a high-profile Macon murder trial deliberated for more than three hours, a bailiff stationed outside the jury room twice informed the judge of “contentious and volatile” deliberations going on inside.
Later that afternoon, Bibb County Superior Court Judge Howard Z. Simms declared a mistrial, and in doing so he cited “juror safety.”
The young man on trial was ordered back to the county jail to await a retrial, and for the most part, that is where Jedarrius Treonta Meadows Jr., who was 19 at the time, has been ever since.
But on Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Simms made a mistake, that instead of halting the trial, Simms should have told jurors to continue deliberating. And that because Simms didn’t do that, retrying Meadows now would amount to double jeopardy — trying someone twice for the same crime, which is unconstitutional.
Most notably, the high court’s ruling said that “Meadows should be promptly ordered released from confinement.”
As of late Monday afternoon, Meadows, now 21, was still in jail. Even so, he was expected to be freed soon.
Meadows, a member of a gang that went by the vulgar moniker “Fu--Life,” was arrested two days after the Feb. 22, 2014, shooting death of 16-year-old Damion Bernard “Little Petey” Clayton.
Clayton, gunned down at a Little League ballpark on Anthony Road across from Henderson Stadium, was said to have been a member of a rival Unionville gang known as “10-12.”
His killing was widely reported locally, largely because of its gang ties and because Clayton had been the target of a murder three months earlier.
In November of 2013, A gunman took aim at Clayton, who lived with his great-grandmother on Lilly Avenue, while Clayton was talking to a teenager named Alyssa Jackson on nearby Cedar Avenue, a few blocks west of Pio Nono Avenue.
The shooter in that attack, Dontavius Mintz, who later pleaded guilty, missed Clayton, but his stray bullet killed the 16-year-old Jackson. Clayton later identified Mintz as the shooter and Clayton was expected to testify against Mintz. But then Clayton was killed.
Meadows and two other young men, both of whom pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony against Meadows, had been charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault, murder and participating in street-gang activity. Meadows has denied shooting Clayton, saying he was at a carnival when the killing happened.
Monday’s high-stakes ruling from the state’s highest court came as a shock to the county’s legal and law enforcement communities.
Simms, the judge, told The Telegraph that his decision to declare a mistrial was the right call considering the circumstances. He disagreed with the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling based on its reading of what Simms described as the “cold record” of events that prompted his mistrial declaration.
Simms contends that a trial judge has “a great deal of deference” when it comes to jury proceedings. “To tell me procedurally how to manage a trial they were not present for,” Simms said, “I have a problem with that.”
The Georgia Supreme Court noted in its ruling that “any conclusion that the jurors were or felt unsafe is, at best, only tenuously supported by the record. In its order, the trial court asserted that it became ‘imminently concerned for the safety of the jurors … after one juror was excused due to the contentious nature of the deliberations.’ Nothing in the trial record supports that assertion.”
News of the high court’s ruling did not spread so swiftly to those it may affect the most.
North of Anthony Road at the Lilly Avenue home where Clayton had lived with his now-87-year-old great-grandmother, Dorothy Hubbard, the decision came as an unwelcome surprise.
When a Telegraph reporter broke the news to her, Hubbard, in anger, rapped her hand on her metal screen door.
“Lord, Jesus,” she would later say, shaking her head. “Mmmm-mmm.”
In her living room where a laminated “You Are Truly Missed” poster of Clayton hangs behind a candle above her TV, Hubbard sat silent and sobbed. In the next room, the bedroom that had been Clayton’s, stuffed animals and tennis shoes adorned the shelves much the way he left them.
“There’s nothing I can say,” Hubbard said finally. “God, help us all.”
Reached by phone and told that her younger brother’s accused killer would soon be a free man, Clayton’s sister, Joslyn Clayton-Dillard, seemed unfazed.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “We love God and he doesn’t make any mistakes. That is my statement. … Everything’ll take care of itself. … There are no hard feelings or anything.”
Clayton-Dillard, 29, added, “We don’t have any reason to be upset. I mean, when we lost our brother it was a gift and a curse at the same time. It brought my family together and it’s making us better and better every day. We cannot complain at all. It’s clearly out of our control.”
Asked of her thoughts about Meadows, she said, “We don’t have any issues with him. We don’t know him. We barely knew the relationship that he had with my brother. … The (district attorney and the police), they did what they could. I’m pretty sure they tried their best.”
In an email, Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney David Cooke told The Telegraph, “We stand by the evidence presented at trial that proves Mr. Meadows’ guilt in the murder of Damian Bernard ‘Little Petey’ Clayton. While we respect the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion, we strongly disagree with it and are evaluating our appellate options.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what those options may be, or if anything could come of them.
Bibb Sheriff David Davis termed the high court’s decision “truly unfortunate.”
“A person that we believe took another person’s life is gonna walk free,” Davis said. “But that’s the system that we live under.”
Then sheriff considered the apparent gang rivalry that triggered the attack on Clayton in the first place.
With Meadows soon to be back on the street, Davis worried about retaliatory and ancillary violence that Monday’s court ruling might prompt on the mean streets of Unionville, where outlaws emboldened by gang affiliations on occasion dispense their own brands of justice.
“Even though the (Georgia) Supreme Court has ruled,” Davis said, “the court of the street may have the final say.”