Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr., the Byron-area man facing a death penalty prosecution in the 2016 killings of two Peach County sheriff’s deputies, is expected to plead guilty next month in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole, according to one of the slain lawmen’s sons.
“We are not OK with this,” said Jacob Sondron, the son of Patrick Sondron, one of the deputies gunned down 21 months ago in an apparently unprovoked attack outside Elrod’s house.
In recent days, Jacob Sondron, 23, has taken to social media to express his displeasure with the yet-to-be-made-public development.
He told The Telegraph on Tuesday that District Attorney David Cooke met privately late last week with him, his mother — Patrick Sondron’s widow, Melissa — and others close to his family to inform them of the likelihood of a negotiated plea.
When contacted by The Telegraph, Cooke declined to comment, as did one of Elrod’s attorneys, Franklin J. Hogue. Due to the tentative nature of such negotiations, lawyers rarely discuss pleas until they are signed in court.
Amy Leigh Womack, a district attorney’s office spokeswoman, said in a statement, “We’re not allowed to comment on even the possibility of plea negotiations in any case. We’ll be ready to proceed at our next scheduled hearing.”
Hearings in the case are set for early next month. Jacob Sondron said he and his family were told that Elrod — whose trial was expected to start sometime next spring — will plead guilty Sept. 6 at the county courthouse in Fort Valley.
Sheriff’s deputies Patrick Sondron and Daryl Smallwood were shot and fatally wounded Nov. 6, 2016, when they answered a call from one of Elrod’s neighbors who reported that Elrod, now 59, had threatened someone outside his house along Hardison Road on the outskirts of Byron.
Jacob Sondron on Tuesday told The Telegraph that his father’s mother as well as a loved one close to slain deputy Smallwood were on board with the district attorney’s decision to forgo a death penalty prosecution.
“(Cooke) came out and said the best thing to do is pursue a plea deal. … I just saw red,” Jacob Sondron said, recalling his reaction when Cooke broke the news, “and my mouth took over. … I voiced my disapproval.”
Jacob Sondron added: “If this case doesn’t get the death penalty, what are the requirements to receive the death penalty?”
He also said Cooke “hinted at us not saying anything” publicly before the Sept. 6 hearing. But Jacob Sondron said “I went ahead and blasted it” on social media.
“It isn’t just about my dad and Daryl,” he said. “It’s about law enforcement officers as a whole — knowing that if something were to happen to them in the line of duty, that elected officials would have their backs. … It’s just the principle of it, just making that effort to even try.”
It is unclear what may have prompted a prosecutorial change of heart in the high-profile case.
One possibility could be Elrod’s age. If convicted, Elrod, who turns 60 in January, might die in prison before he could be executed.
A life-without-parole sentence would at least seem to be a win for him and for his attorneys, who have previously offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for spending the rest of his natural life behind bars.
Two of Elrod’s three lawyers represented Christopher Calmer, who shot and killed Monroe County sheriff’s deputy Michael Andrew Norris near Bolingbroke in 2014. Calmer, who also faced the death penalty, was convicted of murder but sentenced to life without parole.
Since late 2012 when Cooke was sworn in as district attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Peach, Crawford and Bibb counties, his office has sought the death penalty in one case. But the killers in that instance, the murder of legal secretary Gail Spencer, were allowed to plead guilty to life without parole.
Another death penalty case that Cooke and his prosecutors handled, one of the highest-profile murder cases in recent midstate history, involved the Lauren Giddings killing. Cooke’s administration inherited that case after he was elected. Giddings’ killer, Stephen McDaniel, later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life, but with a chance for parole.
Jacob Sondron told The Telegraph that in the case of his father’s alleged killer’s fate, Cooke probably “has his mind made up. So I don’t think there’s anything I could put up on Facebook that’s gonna sway” the district attorney.
Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese said Wednesday that he was “disappointed” with the decision not to pursue the death penalty for Elrod, but he understands the district attorney’s reasoning for taking a plea.
The sheriff said members of slain deputy Smallwood’s family are in favor of not seeking death, at least in part because of the years-long legal maneuvering to come and the pain of re-living the killing at future hearings. What’s more, Elrod could be close to 80 years old — or older — before his appeals run out, were he to be sent to death row.
Deese said in “numerous” behind-the-scenes meetings with prosecutors that the district attorney’s office had been “very open” about its handling of the case.
“My opinion is like I’ve expressed at every meeting we’ve had: If there’s ever been a man or case that deserves the death penalty, this is it,” the sheriff said, later adding, “but it’s the district attorney’s call.”
Deese, a death penalty proponent, described the killings of his two deputies as “the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.”
And now, the sheriff went on, “it seems the scales (of justice) tend to lean more for the defendant.”