A man charged in the Dec. 2009 murder of an Ogeechee Technical College student pled guilty Monday to murder and other charges. Bulloch County Superior Court Judge William T. Woodrum sentenced Darryl Anthony Priestly, 18, McDonough, to life plus 10 years.
Priestly hesitated briefly at times, but replied “guilty” to all charges Woodrum read. Throughout the hearing Monday he kept his head down, but gave a brief glance to his victim’s friends and family before leaving the courtroom.
Priestly strangled 19-year-old Brandie Danielle Davis Dec. 7, 2009, in her Campus Crossings apartment.
Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Daphne Jarriel gave a brief overview of the case, laying out evidence that she said would definitely convict Priestley if the case had gone to trial.
Jarriel recommended the court sentence Priestly to life for the murder charge; 10 years each for charges of tampering with evidence (one sentence to run concurrently, and one to run consecutively to the life sentence), and five years concurrent for the charge of false statements. Priestley's court-appointed attorney Renata Newbill-Jallows agreed to the plea bargain, acknowledging Jarriel’s comments that there “is factual basis for all charges” and that the prosecution was confident of a conviction if a trial occurred.
Jarriel said evidence would show that Priestley’s DNA was found on a boom box cord and a laptop computer cord he used to strangle Davis; he also strangled her with his hands.
She had been battered, with several wounds to her head, and a mechanical pencil was shoved through the roof of her mouth, although that wound was posthumous and was not the cause of death, she said.
As Woodrum read the charges, Priestley stood silent for a brief moment after each charge, then uttered “guilty.” He said he understood the charges and the sentence, and waived the right to future appeals.
About 15 people, friends and family of Davis, were present for the plea hearing Monday. None of Priestley’s family was present.
Search for a suspect
According to Jarriel, as well as testimony from other sources during a bond hearing Jan. 19, Campus Crossings Apartments staff found Davis’ body Dec. 8, 2009 after her family asked them to check on her, worried because she had not shown up for her mother’s open heart surgery in McDonough. They could not reach her by phone, either.
During the trial in January, Statesboro Police Det. Sgt. James Winskey, who led the murder investigation, was the only witness who took the stand. He said Davis' body was found covered up with clothing, topped with an office type chair and a clothes basket. She was pronounced dead at the scene by EMS technicians.
After word spread about Davis’ death, two men who were with Priestley at Davis’ apartment the night before, Raul DelGado and Anthony Farber, approached police and spoke with them about leaving her home around 10:30 p.m. Dec. 7, Jarriel said.
Police located and questioned Priestley, who said he never returned to Davis’ apartment after leaving with Farber and DelGado. But further evidence led investigators to question Priestly again in McDonough, where he admitted having gone back to Davis’ apartment later that night and said he was present and “saw her take her last breath,” Winskey said.
Jarriel said evidence would prove Priestley killed Davis, covered her with the contents of a laundry basket and a chair, took her keys and cell phone, and left. He locked the door using her electronic key, and possibly took the cell phone to remove further evidence, since Davis called his cell twice around 11:10 p.m. that night, with calls lasting about 10 seconds each.
District Attorney Investigator Tom Woodrum obtained Davis' phone records, which showed Davis was speaking to her fiance Dustin Willett on the phone when Priestly arrived at her home around 11:09, Winskey said.
Willette was on the phone with Davis when she said someone was knocking at the door. She told him it was her friend Molly, but it was in fact Priestley at the door, Winskey said. Davis dialed Priestly's phone twice just seconds after hanging up with Willett, "but Daryl was in the room" when she did so, he said.
During investigations, Priestley gave several conflicting statements. In one statement, Priestly said he stopped by Davis' apartment to get his cell phone, which he said he left there. He told police Davis tripped and fell, choking on the mechanical pencil, and that he "saw her take her last breath," Winskey told the court. "He said he covered her face and ran home to cry."
Electronic records show someone locked Davis' door at 11:33 p.m. Dec. 7, and it had not been opened again until apartment security opened it, he said. Priestley told investigators he locked the door when he left "out of respect," and said he wrapped the computer and boom box cords around her neck to make it appear her death was caused by someone else.
However, Priestley has never said why he killed Davis, or why he wanted to make it appear she died at someone else’s hands, Jarriel said Monday.
There was no evidence Davis was sexually assaulted, although Priestly admitted pulling Davis’ shirt and bra up so he could check for a heartbeat, she said.
Davis suffered extensive injuries including bruising, scratches, and what appeared to be "carpet burn" on her face, throat, ears and scalp, he said. Preliminary autopsy reports listed the cause of death as strangulation, and he said Davis' neck showed signs of both manual and ligature strangulation.
While Priestley stated in reports Davis died from being "choked" by the pencil, the severe injury made by the pencil piercing the roof of her mouth was not a fatal injury, Winskey said.
Prosecutors, police, Davis’ friends and family and others have likely asked the question repeatedly over the past year: “Why?” But, Jarriel said Priestly never made any statement, written or verbal, giving reasons why he killed Davis, a woman he knew in high school, where they both grew up together in McDonough.
Farber was not immediately available for comment after the hearing Monday, but DelGado said he was just as puzzled by the murder as anyone.
He said Priestley showed up at his dorm earlier that evening Dec. 7, 2009, and they both started looking for someone to give them a ride to pick up DelGado’s truck, left at another apartment complex.
They decided to ask Davis, whom they both knew from their hometown, but were not extremely close friends, he said.
Davis took them to get his truck, then she stopped to pick up some bananas, and Priestley and DelGado picked up Farber, he said.
They all went back to Davis’ apartment and “sat and talked a while, about an hour,” in Davis’ living room, he said.
There was no argument, no disturbance, no clue that Priestly would return to kill Davis, he said.
“It’s bizarre. It’s just one of those things you don’t want to believe,” he said, adding he could not think of a reason Priestly committed the crime. “I have absolutely no idea – it absolutely blew my mind.”
He described Priestley as quiet, and someone who was never part of a certain crowd in school. He never noticed any indication Priestley could commit murder, especially of someone they all knew and liked. He also said there was never any hint that Priestly had romantic feelings about Davis.
“This was very shocking,” he said Monday. “I wish I could go back and change things to where it didn’t happen.
After Woodrum handed down the sentence Monday, he asked Priestly if he wanted to make a statement or say anything to Davis’ family. Priestly kept facing forward, looking downward at the podium, and said “No, sir.”
As he was led out of the courtroom in shackles, he gave a brief glance towards Davis’ friends and family before going through the door.
None of Davis’ friends or family members gave statements during the hearing.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at 912-489-9414.