Jamontea Marquil Pitts, convicted July 2 by a Bulloch County Superior Court jury of malice murder and other charges for his role in the 2016 killing of Georgia Southern University student Forrest Kibler, was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After hearing from prosecutors, from one of Pitts’ defense attorneys, from Pitts himself and from Kibler’s parents, Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. imposed that sentence plus five consecutive years for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
“Maybe at some point in the future we will have it in our hearts to forgive you for your part in Forrest’s murder, but right now the hurt and anger are too great,” Chris Kibler, the victim’s father, said in remarks directed at Pitts. “We will never understand your blatant disregard for human life and sincerely do not want any family to go through the anguish we have experienced.”
This was part of a longer statement he read in open court Wednesday on behalf of himself and his wife, Zoe Eustathiades, who also attended the hearing. Suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, their son had struggled his entire life to succeed in school. After signing up for a Youth Challenge program he obtained his GED, then enrolled at Georgia Southern, paying his own way, to study mechanical engineering. Nearly done with his junior year, he was very excited about plans to go to Europe for summer studies, his father recalled.
“These dreams and ambitions ended when you took Forrest’s life,” he said.
Forrest Kibler, 25, died after being shot once in the chest with a 9mm handgun Nov. 4, 2016, at Park Place, a private apartment complex across the bypass from the university campus.
Pitts, who is now 28 and was 24 and had a Guyton address at the time of the shooting, was arrested five days later. His original codefendant, Ashton Marquise King, 19 at the time and also from Guyton, was arrested a week after that.
Statesboro police, in the investigation led by Detective Ben Purvis and involving Detective Keith Holloway, collected phone records and text messages indicating that Kibler intended to purchase $400 worth of marijuana from Pitts, referred to as “Monty,” and texts from Pitts to someone named Ashton regarding a “$400 lick.”
During Pitts’ trial, jurors were shown video of an interview with the detectives in which Pitts said that after he, King and an older brother of King’s came to Statesboro that evening, King pulled a gun on Kibler to rob him and shot him in the chest during the ensuing struggle.
Pitts and King were originally indicted on the same set of charges, but prosecutors with the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office offered to drop charges of malice murder and felony murder against Pitts if he testified truthfully in the case against King and pleaded guilty to other charges.
Those charges included armed robbery, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. In the plea agreement, Pitts would have served 18 years in prison followed by 12 years on probation, according to District Attorney Daphne Totten.
But in April 2019 after King’s trial had begun, Pitts backed out of the deal, declining to testify. A jury then acquitted King of all charges.
Things went differently for Pitts when Chief Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black and Assistant District Attorney Russell Jones prosecuted the case against him June 30-July 2. Closing arguments were held at the end of the second day, and after deliberating for about three hours on the third day, the jury returned with unanimous guilty verdicts on both malice murder and murder in the commission of a felony, despite finding Pitts not guilty of armed robbery, the charge prosecutors intended to support the charge of felony murder.
Bennett on Wednesday ruled the felony murder charge “vacated by operation of law,” so as to sentence Pitts for only one type of murder. Other charges in what was originally an eight-count indictment had been eliminated.
But the jury had convicted him of possessing a firearm during a felony as well as malice murder, and the prosecutors sought the maximum sentence for both charges.
This recommendation was based both on Pitts’ prior criminal history “showing that he is a danger to society” and his conduct in the current case, Jones said.
He traced that history from Pitts’ juvenile arrests in Philadelphia in May 2009 for a drug charge and then charges of robbery and terroristic threats, followed by a July 2011 conviction in Texas for misdemeanor assault against a family member. Less than a month later he was arrested in Guyton for armed robbery and aggravated assault.
In that Effingham County case, Pitts was sentenced to serve seven years followed by 13 years on probation. Released in April 2016, he was arrested in Bulloch County seven months later in the Kibler murder case.
“By his own admission, as soon as he gets out of prison, he’s dealing drugs,” Jones said , arguing for the sentence of life without parole.
He also assailed Pitts’ behavior since his murder arrest, especially his backing out of testifying in the trial of his codefendant.
”I think it’s fair to say the defendant treated this entire proceeding, particularly in regards to Ashton King, as a joke,” Jones said. “There was an agreement in place to testify, and the way the defendant shredded that agreement, the timing of it, was designed to hamper the prosecution.”
Defense attorney Robert Mock took issue with this characterization of Pitts’ actions.
“I don’t believe he had any intention to hamper the prosecution of Mr. King. …,” Mock said. “People change their minds for many reasons, not necessarily because they think that something is a joke or they lack remorse or empathy for another person.”
Someone could back out of testifying because “they don’t think the deal is good enough” or out of fear “of retaliation outside of prison or inside prison” among “many other possibilities,” he asserted.
Mock and attorney Jack Downie represented Pitts during his trial.
At the sentencing hearing, Mock noted that Pitts continued to maintain his innocence and said he had helped law enforcement try to obtain a confession from King. The defense requested a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, instead of without – those being the only possibilities on the murder conviction – and five years probation for the firearm charge.
Pitts speaks in court
Pitts, at his own request and contrary to his attorney’s advice, made a statement during the hearing. He was sworn in to do so. Saying nothing about Kibler’s death or to his parents, Pitts instead asserted that his rights had been violated.
“I wish to state on the record that I feel like I had a prejudiced trial,” he began, and referred by number to some sections of the state Constitution. He added that he disagreed with a plea deal he was offered and said he’d been asked questions without having his lawyer present.
Jones declined to cross-examine Pitts but called his statement further evidence of a lack of remorse or empathy.
In stating his decision, Bennett told Pitts the court was not taking into account anything about his out-of-state record or about his decision not to testify in King’s case, since it had been his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
But the court was taking into account the Guyton armed robbery case and also “the lack of remorse as we saw demonstrated today,” Bennett said.
The court proceedings leave unanswered whether Pitts or King fired the shot that killed Kibler, as prosecutors acknowledged after Wednesday’s hearing.
“Ashton King never gave a statement to law enforcement. Jamontea Pitts insisted from the start that Ashton King fired the gun,” Jones said. “That said, Jamontea Pitts does have this prior armed robbery conviction and we know that the two of them, working in concert, caused the death of Mr. Kibler, but who exactly pulled the trigger we’re never going to know at this point.”
District Attorney Totten noted that the indictment charged King and Pitts “individually and as parties concerned in the commission of the crime.”
When prosecutors spoke to members of the jury that acquitted King, some said they believed Pitts pulled the trigger, she said.