Weiss accepts blind plea sentence

The Pike County murder trial of Jamie Weis – who on Feb. 2, 2006, killed his elderly neighbor Catherine King during a botched burglary – ended Friday, July 19 in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Tommy Hankinson when the accused accepted a sentence imposed by Hankinson, who also personally advised the defendant he could enter a blind plea earlier that week.

According to Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Scott Ballard, Hankinson on Monday excused himself from the bench and retired to his chambers where he was said to have had a lengthy conversation with Senior Superior Court Judge Christopher Edwards. Afterward, Hankinson met in chambers with Ballard and the prosecution team, as well as Weis and his defense counsel.

“Judge Hankinson told Mr. Weis that he felt he should advise him that he has the right to enter a blind plea, and that if he did, he (Hankinson) would give him 24 hours to think about the sentence. If Weis didn’t like the sentence Judge Hankinson imposed, he would then be able to dismiss his plea,” Ballard explained. “I objected to that. I told Judge Hankinson the Uniform Rules (Georgia Uniform Superior Court Rules) don’t allow a defendant to withdraw their plea if they don’t like the sentence. They have to show manifest injustice to withdraw a plea.”

Ballard contends Hankinson responded to his objection by stating, “Well, this is what I do for everybody on a blind plea, so I’ll do it for him, too.”

A blind plea is one in which prosecutors have not agreed to a predetermined sentence, but rather all sentencing options remain on the table. In the Weis trial, that meant the death penalty would remain a sentencing option for Hankinson, along with life without parole and life with parole.

Weis agreed to this and entered a blind plea with the knowledge that he would be allowed by Hankinson to withdraw his guilty plea if he did not approve of the sentence imposed. Should Weis have withdrawn his plea, it would have resulted in the resumption of jury selection and a trial.

Prosecutors and defense counsel then presented evidence and arguments before Hankinson, with Ballard arguing Weis’s brutal murder of King involved multiple aggravating factors that made death the appropriate sentence. Furthermore, Ballard said any sentence less than death would be a “reward” to Weis.

“I argued that when you consider how Weis was living before this – he was homeless, living in the woods; he said he was hungry – and now, if he’s sentenced to life in prison, it would be like Ed McMahon showing up on our doorsteps. He will have a roof over his head, he’ll never go without a meal again and he’ll have a level of medical and dental care that many hard-working law-abiding citizens don’t have,” Ballard said. “For someone who lived like him, this is a reward, not a punishment.”

Stephen Bright, the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a member of the Weis defense team, argued in favor of a life sentence based in large part on his client’s childhood – which he said resulted in mental disorders such as manic depression and dementia resulting from drug abuse – and lack of prior violent offenses.

He said Weis’s troubles dated back to early childhood and his abandonment by his mother.

“His mother was running around with other men, marrying other men and denying she had any children,” Bright said.

This resulted in Weis being placed in the custody of his grandmother, who Bright alleges was abusive.

“She had been abusive to her own children and was very abusive to him (Weis),” he said.

Bright acknowledged Weis’s father was “a good provider,” but that positive characteristic led him away from home to work in North Carolina mines.

From the ages of six to 13, Bright argued that Weis was completely controlled by his allegedly abusive grandmother who would not even allow her grandson to play with other children. At the beginning of his teen years, however, he was returned to his father’s custody, which Bright said resulted in a complete reversal from the life Weis had thus experienced.

“He went from being under her absolute control to have complete and total freedom,” he said, describing a complete lack of adult supervision from that time on.

This freedom led Weis begin “huffing gasoline” at the age of 13. This, Bright argued, is the root of the dementia he said Weis now experiences.

Weis later became addicted to Oxycontin and eventually crack cocaine, Bright said, adding that it was the defendant’s drug abuse that led to the burglary of King’s home.

“Mr. Weis is more than the worse thing he ever did,” Bright passionately argued.

Furthermore, Bright said Weis is not “beyond redemption,” and as an example of his assertion, said, “I believe Jamie Weis has shown remorse. He is extremely sorry for what he’s done.”

Bright also acknowledged the horrible suffering the King family has experienced and that Weis is responsible for that.

“The question is, is this person a rotten soul? He certainly had a rotten soul on the day this occurred,” Bright admitted.

Despite this admission, Bright argued that while the Weis should be severely punished, it should not be by the imposition of the death penalty.

“Particularly, to be in prison without the possibility of parole – some argue it’s a sentence worse than the death penalty,” he said. “I submit when you look at all these factors, this is not a death penalty case.”

Upon the conclusion of closing arguments, Hankinson took a brief recess of less than 30 minutes before returning to the bench to announce Weis’s sentence on seven felony counts.

On the first count, malice murder, Weis was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole; counts two and three, felony murder, as well as count four, aggravated assault on a person over the age of 65, all merged with count one, meaning no additional sentences on those charges. For armed robbery, Weis received an additional life sentence to be served consecutively to count one; for the burglary of King’s home, Weis was sentenced to 20 years, also to be served consecutively; and for the final charge – possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, Weis was sentenced to an additional five years, also to be served consecutively.

After announcing his sentence, Hankinson adjourned court until noon Friday, approximately 24 hours later, at which time Weis announced he would accept this sentence.

Despite the fact that Weis will most likely spend the remainder of his life in prison, Ballard is not satisfied with the outcome of the trial.

“We certainly don’t seek the death penalty for every murder case we have. I base that decision on much prayerful consideration, as I would hope a jury would, also,” Ballard said. “But for centuries now, we’ve had a justice system where the judge presides over the case, the lawyers decide how to present their cases and the jury makes decisions. I just wish we could let the system work instead of judges short-circuiting our death penalty cases and diverting them away from the jury. We have juries for a reason and I think we ought to use them. Ultimately, what do the people of Pike County have to say about this?”

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