A June-July trial in Bulloch County and a May trial in Effingham County were the first two murder trials in the four-county Ogeechee Judicial Circuit since jury trials were allowed to resume. Both trials in these unrelated cases resulted in convictions and sentences of life without parole.
But the case in Effingham County included two defendants convicted of a single murder.
“The jury found both defendants guilty, so we have now successfully tried two murder cases since being able to resume jury trials,” Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney Daphne Totten stated last week.
That was Wednesday, the day of the sentencing of Jamontea Marquil Pitts, now 28, in Bulloch County Superior Court for his role in the Nov. 4, 2016, shooting death of Georgia Southern University student Forrest Kibler, 25. As previously reported, Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. sentenced Pitts to life without the possibility of parole for malice murder, plus five years consecutive for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
At the conclusion of his June 30-July 2 trial, a Bulloch County jury had found Pitts guilty of those charges, plus “felony murder,” meaning causing a death by committing a different felony. However, Bennett vacated the felony murder charge so as to sentence Pitts for the single malice murder conviction. The jury had found him not guilty of armed robbery in this case.
As was also considered at sentencing, Pitts had been released from prison in April 2016 after a December 2011 guilty plea to armed robbery and aggravated assault for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison plus 13 years on probation.
His more recent trial was the first murder trial in Bulloch County since March 2020.
Effingham’s May trial
But as Totten pointed out, it wasn’t the first murder trial in the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit since jury trials were allowed again after being suspended for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first was the May 24-27 trial of Aaron Edward Knight, now 27, and Autumn Gale White, now 33, in Effingham County Superior Court at Springfield. A jury there unanimously found them both guilty of malice murder and all other charges in their indictments for the Sept.27-Oct. 2, 2018, killing and robbery of Dennis Cleve Wills Sr., 64, at his home on Holly Lane near Rincon.
A medical examiner testified that Wills had been stabbed more than 30 times and his throat slit.
In sentencing Knight and White, circuit Chief Judge F. Gates Peed merged the one charge of armed robbery and three counts of aggravated assault against each of the defendants into the two counts of felony murder and vacated that charge in favor of the malice murder conviction.
He then sentenced them both to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder, plus 20 years for aggravated battery, 10 years on four counts of theft by taking and one count of identity fraud and three years for financial card theft.
The indictments had charged Knight with 14 criminal counts and White with 18 counts, including against her three additional charges of financial card fraud and one of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The fraud charges brought two-year sentences and the firearm charge a five-year sentence.
But the judge made all of the lesser sentences consecutive to the murder sentence, so the total effect is a life sentence without parole, plus 20 years for both defendants.
Investigators said that Knight and White stole Wills’ 1998 Dodge Ram pickup, Marlin .22-caliber rifle, Iver Johnson .410 Champion shotgun and Fabrica Arms 1873 rifle and also his BB&T debit card, which White used to make purchases.
Assistant District Attorney Matt Breedon prosecuted the case, while White was represented by Renata Newbill-Jallow of the Public Defender’s Office and Knight was represented by Stephen Yekel.
The unrelated 2016 Forrest Kibler murder case in Bulloch County also originally involved two codefendants. But Pitts’ codefendant, Ashton Marquise King, 19 at time of arrest, was found not guilty of all charges by a local jury in April 2019.
King’s acquittal followed Pitts’ withdrawal from a plea agreement in which he was to have testified truthfully against King during his trial. Prosecutors intended to drop the murder charges against Pitts but have him serve 18 years in prison and 12 years on probation on guilty pleas to other charges, Totten said. But Pitt declined to testify after King’s trial had begun.
This Bulloch County case also had an Effingham County connection, since both Pitts and King had Guyton addresses, and Pitts’ previous armed robbery sentence was from Effingham.
Prior to the recent Bulloch and Effingham murder trials, hearings on the admissibility of evidence were held and the judges allowed “other bad acts” evidence in both cases, Totten noted. In the Effingham case, the state presented evidence that White previously set up another man to be robbed.
Previous Bulloch homicide trial
Before these trials, the most recent homicide trial here had occurred about 15 months earlier.
That was the February 2020 trial of Eric Dyquen Nicolas, just 16 at time of arrest, for the June 1, 2018 shooting death of Tamashe' Diquan Jones, 19. Like the killing of Kibler, the shooting of Jones occurred at Park Place, an apartment complex off Lanier Drive.
Nicolas, from Statesboro, turned himself in to Statesboro police three days after the shooting and was originally charged with felony murder and aggravated assault. But the jury found him guilty of the lesser included charge of voluntary manslaughter, not murder.
He received a 25-year sentence, including 20 years for manslaughter and five years for possessing a firearm while committing a felony. He can be considered for parole.
After last year’s ban on juries coincided with a rise in homicides, Totten said in February that 27 homicide cases were awaiting court action in the circuit, including 15 murder cases in Bulloch County alone.