Stating that he believed good things people said about William Marcus Wilson and that it was a colorblind decision, Superior Court Judge Ronald K. “Ronnie” Thompson sentenced Wilson to 10 years in prison Tuesday, following his Aug. 31 conviction of involuntary manslaughter for the June 14, 2020 shooting death of Haley Hutcheson.
It is the maximum sentence allowed under Georgia law for involuntary manslaughter. The sentence entails credit for time served, including 682 days Wilson spent in jail before he was released on bond in March awaiting trial plus 20 days in jail between the jury verdict and sentencing, for a total of 702 days, or more than 23 months, leaving more than eight years still to serve.
Thompson listened to about two hours of witness testimony and arguments from attorneys for the defense and the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office during the sentencing hearing. The defense asked Thompson to reduce the involuntary manslaughter conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor or to let him eventually be exonerated under First Offender status, while the prosecution requested the maximum sentence – 10 years in prison.
The judge then took about 45 minutes before returning to the courtroom in the Bulloch County Judicial Annex in downtown Statesboro and pronouncing Wilson’s sentence.
Speaking to everyone in the courtroom, Thompson outlined what he called “some of the things that have been on the court’s mind and the things that have come to factor in this sentencing,” appearing both to accept the testimony he heard about Wilson’s previous exemplary behavior and to acknowledge that fear-inducing circumstances existed during the pandemic stricken, racially agitated summer of 2020.
“The court is very mindful of what was going on when this happened, everything that was going on in the country, and you know, I think somebody made a statement about Marcus Wilson being capable of killing someone,” Thompson said. “Well, one thing that the court has thought about is maybe all of us in a certain situation are capable of killing someone, depending on the circumstances. The question in a society where we value law and order is whether or not it’s justified.”
The judge said he rejected any suggestion that the sentence would have anything to do with race.
“I want everyone in this room to know that irregardless of a person’s race, whether it’s their birth certificate, what they may identify as, whatever race they say they are, this court is colorblind, and I can assure you that the sentence that Mr. Wilson gets today would be the same sentence as any person of any color under the same circumstances,” Thompson said.
He said he didn’t see Wilson as a Black man or a man of mixed race.
“I see a man, a young man, and he’s had a lot of people come to court and say good things about him, and I don’t doubt that any of it is true. I’m sure it is true,” the judge said, and also acknowledged that Wilson had obeyed the court’s rules while out on bond.
‘A bad decision’
“What it comes down to is choices, and I would tell Mr. Wilson the same thing I would tell any other person of any other color in his circumstances, that he made a bad decision … now, even though you haven’t addressed the court directly, I believe that that’s what you feel, so that is to your credit,” Thompson said.
Wilson fired several shots from a 9mm handgun while driving his Ford Fusion, accompanied by his then-girlfriend Emma Rigdon, along Veterans Memorial Parkway, shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, June 14, 2020, and one bullet struck Hutcheson in the head. At the time she was riding with four other teenagers from Claxton in a four-door Chevrolet Silverado pickup.
During the trial and in earlier hearings, Wilson’s attorneys argued that teenagers in the truck, particularly the three young men, initiated a conflict, shouting racial slurs, gesturing and swerving into his lane, after mistaking Wilson, who identifies as biracial, and Rigdon, who is white, for another interracial couple. The two young men from the truck who testified, driver Mason Glisson and passenger Ashton Deloach, acknowledged that they had been drinking, although all were underage at the time.
After Statesboro police charged the third young man from the truck, Luke Conley, with misdemeanor obstruction early in their investigation for alleged inconsistencies in his story, he exercised his Fifth Amendment right not to testify at any of Wilson’s proceedings.
Rigdon testified, both during the trial and earlier hearings, that she did not hear what the truck’s occupants said to Wilson. However, she testified to having been afraid, that the truck had swerved and the young men had been “hanging out” of the windows, and that she heard a sound like a “boom.” Police found no damage to Wilson’s car but a beer can on the side of the road matching others found in the truck.
Rigdon testified again Tuesday, called to the stand by one of Wilson’s attorneys, Martha Hall.
“I fully believe Marc saved my life that night,” Rigdon said. “I wholly believe if Marc was not there that night and wouldn’t have done what he did, we would have both been dead.”
She went on to express sympathy for Hutcheson’s family, adding “Marc is not the reason Haley’s not here.”
However, Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black, in cross-examination, had Rigdon acknowledge that she did not come forward about the shooting incident until Statesboro police detectives came to her Statesboro apartment two days afterward. Black also reminded the judge that Wilson had returned to his family home in Sharpsburg and not told his parents until after detectives spoke to him on the phone during their visit with Rigdon.
‘The other side’
“But on the other side, if Miss Rigdon’s friend would not have contacted police, I believe this would be an unsolved crime, and that would be really bad, because you would be living with it until your conscience got to you,” Thompson said to Wilson. “But they (indicating Hutcheson’s family) would definitely have to live with it, because there would be no resolution, no finality.”
Thompson rejected the First Offender request, saying that would mean setting aside what the jury had decided, “and the jury did not exonerate him.”
Involuntary manslaughter carries a sentencing range of one to 10 years. It was the least severe of the three “lesser” homicide charge options that Thompson included in instructions to the jury before they began their deliberations on Aug. 30.
The trial jury acquitted him of all the other charges originally alleged in the November 2020 grand jury indictment, including felony murder – a conviction for which would have brought a life sentence.
The other possibilities were second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
The crime of which Wilson was convicted, involuntary manslaughter at the felony level, means that someone while committing “an unlawful act other than a felony” caused the death of another person “without any intention to do so.”
District Attorney Daphne Totten, who attended the sentencing hearing, and Black, who was lead prosecutor in the case, said the verdict and sentence were a welcome conclusion.
“We’re grateful that this case is over and that Haley’s family can finally have some closure,” Totten said. “It’s been a long two years getting to this point…”
“This was a hard fight,” Black said. “We were able to prevail by trusting in our jurors, by trusting in our court. We are pleased with the result, the (victim’s) family is pleased with the result. There has been an outcry of justice for this defendant and we feel that justice has been served.”
But Wilson’s attorneys rejected the idea that the maximum sentence was justice for what they and his other supporters still maintain was an act of self-defense.
They and Wilson’s parents and Rigdon and others who testified on his behalf were joined by representatives of several civil rights and social justice advocacy organizations, including the Southern Center for Human Rights, Just Georgia and others on the steps of the Judicial Annex after Tuesday’s hearing.
“Make no mistake about it, our task was very clear, and that was to stop a legal lynching,” Wilson’s lead attorney, Francys Johnson said. “This DA, like many runaway DA’s across the state – Daphne Totten is no different from a Jackie Johnson – wanted Marc Wilson’s life, and despite the sentence today, she will not have it. Marc Wilson will have a life, and I’m grateful for that.”
He said Wilson’s legal team intends to file both an appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals and motions for prosecutorial misconduct with the State Bar and the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Meanwhile, the prosecutors asked that Wilson be made to pay $11,143 to Hutcheson’s family for the cost of her funeral, and Thompson slated a Sept. 27 hearing on that.