The former GSP Trooper who is facing a felony murder charge appeared in Screven County Superior Court Monday morning for another bond hearing before Judge Gates Peed.
Monday’s hearing was the third attempt by attorneys to obtain a bond for Jacob Thompson, who has been in the Screven County jail since August 14. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation charged Thompson with felony murder and aggravated assaulted in the shooting death of Julian Lewis, a motorist Thompson attempted to stop in Screven County on the evening of August 7, 2020. A pursuit ensued when Lewis fled, leading Thompson to perform a PIT maneuver to end the chase, but when the vehicles came to a stop and Thompson exited his patrol car, he says he heard the engine revving, and believed Lewis was going to use his vehicle to harm him. Thompson fired one shot, striking Lewis in the head. The GBI contends that the use of force was not justified because Lewis’ car was disabled and off when agents arrived on the scene approximately two hours after the shooting.
But during a preliminary hearing in September, a Screven County volunteer firefighter – who was also the first person to arrive on scene minutes after the shooting – testified that the lights of Lewis’ car were still on when he arrived, a fact he said he was certain of because they were ‘blinding’ him while he was on the scene. Nevertheless, ADA Ben Edwards has twice argued that Thompson’s ‘version of events is wholly unsupported’ and speaks to lacking credibility of his story.
In previous hearings, defense attorneys Duff Ayers and Robert Persse stated that Thompson should be released so he can work and provide for his family. Thompson was terminated by GSP the same day he was arrested by the GBI, which has created a financial hardship for his wife and young son. Attorneys submitted 50+ character affidavits from members of the community, some of whom attested that they would employ Thompson and ensure he remains in Screven County should he be granted a bond.
Judge Peed denied previous requests for bond following hearings on both August 24 and September 28 and while the court has not cited a reason for the denial of a bond, Assistant District Attorneys for the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit have lamented that the defense cannot guarantee that Thompson won’t ‘commit another felony.’
Thompson’s legal team argued on Monday that their client, who has now been behind bars for 101 days, is the perfect candidate for a bond and poses no threat to the community. Citing O.C.G.A. 17-7-50, which requires a grand jury proceeding within 90 days when a bond is denied, attorney Sam Dennis argued that the statute was put in place to prevent presumed innocent persons from languishing in jail ahead of trial.
Despite understandable delays brought on by the pandemic, Dennis contended that the tentative January date for grand jury proceedings in Screven County would further delay due process could potentially be delayed in perpetuity given the unknown and ever-changing environment of COVID-19, which has brought about nine emergency orders from the Georgia Supreme Court in the last eight months. He cited Thompson’s right to testify during the upcoming grand jury proceedings and the need to prepare for such testimony earnestly as reasons in addition to providing for his family.
ADA Ben Edwards opposed the request for reconsideration and told the court that the circumstances of the case had not changed, leaving no need to ‘disturb the previous Order’ denying bond after the court opted not to dismiss warrants and instead bind it over for grand jury consideration. Even still, Peed allowed the defense to proceed with presenting support for the motion asking for reconsideration of the previously denied bond.
The defense once again called Agent Dustin Peak to the stand to ask a series of questions about the GBI’s crime scene investigation on the night of the shooting. Dennis pressed Peak on inventoried evidence from Lewis’ car and what repercussions would result if evidence was not properly or completely inventoried but later determined to be relevant to the case. Dennis questioned Peak on the discovery of ‘a white powder substance’ in Lewis’ car, but without answering directly, Peak asserted that other evidence in the car would not be relevant to the use of force by Thompson because he intentionally shot Lewis.
Dennis also challenged the GBI’s testing of Lewis’ car at the scene, particularly with regard to inspection of the vacuum sensors, if Peak was familiar with the operational differences of a carbureted engine as opposed to a fuel injected engine, and how much effort was required to shift the 1996 Nissan Sentra in and out of ‘drive.’
Peak concluded the questions by asserting that it was not for him to answer or act as the ‘finder of fact,’ but instead for a grand jury to decide. Dennis responded by telling Peak that he did decide as when he sought warrants for Thompson based on his own conclusions.
The defense also called Thompson’s father, Johnny, and wife, Madison, to testify to his character and their willingness to ensure Thompson meets all bond conditions if released. At one point, the attorney asked Madison Thompson if she believed her husband posed a significant risk of committing other felony offenses, to which she replied, “I don’t believe he’s committed a crime in the first place.” Dennis thanked her for correcting him and noted that her assertion was correct.
SCSO Sergeant Steve Singleton, Trooper Anotonio Curry, Sgt 1st Class & Sylvania Post Commander Christ Wright, and GSP Troop F Captain Chris Lacienski all testified to Thompson’s character, responsibility, and strong ties to the community while attesting that they did not believe Thompson would pose a threat to any person while on bond. Wright and Lacienski, both of whom spend considerable time in Sylvania, said they had faith that the community would respond appropriately to any decision made by the court and that local law enforcement could adequately handle any issues that may arise as a result.
“I have a strong faith in the community,” Captain Lacienski said. “We had an organized response to a previous protest that never really transpired the way it was expected. It was peaceful, very respectful.”
The state did not object to any of the testimony by defense witnesses, but Edwards closed the hearing by reiterating the testimony of Agent Peak and the widow of Julian Lewis, Betty Lewis. “The best evidence is past behavior,” Edwards said. “He shot and killed an unarmed man in an inoperable car. Betty Lewis told this court [in August] that it is her belief that Thompson is a flight risk and that intimidation had already occurred. The court should take that into account.”
When Lewis testified in August, however, she told the court she felt intimidation in the community because of the ‘power players’ and because of fundraisers for Thompson’s family and for legal fees. Lewis did not testify to any specific threat or act of intimidation against her by Jacob Thompson or any other person, but she did ask the judge to deny bond “to send a signal to the community that justice was real in SEGA.”
Defense counsel assured Judge Peed that if bond was granted, Thompson would not object to bond conditions, such as an ankle monitor.
“He doesn’t need that leash, but we don’t object.” Dennis said. “I have repeatedly tried to understand the bond denial thus far and I don’t know how else to satisfy the concerns of the court. He is as worthy of a candidate as I have ever seen.”
Lewis Family Holds Press Conference in Savannah
The family of Julian Lewis, represented by the Davis Bozeman Johnson Law Firm, held a press conference outside the federal courthouse in Savannah on Monday afternoon.
Attorney Mawuli Davis announced that the Lewis family has filed notice of claim of intent to file a lawsuit against the State of Georgia for the death of Julian Lewis. He said should the case not be resolved prior to the expiration date of the claim, attorneys are prepared to file a federal lawsuit in Savannah.
“Julian Lewis was murdered, killed, by a state trooper on August 7,” Davis told reporters. “What happened to Mr. Lewis in Screven County happened to all of us in this state of Georgia, and in this country.”
Statesboro attorney Francys Johnson stood behind Davis alongside Lewis’ wife, mother, aunt and other family members, many of whom were wearing ‘Justice for Julian’ shirts, before he briefly addressed reporters. Johnson told reporters that Lewis would be alive today had Thompson not ‘assassinated’ him when he committed the act of aggravated assault during the traffic stop. He noted that he expected Judge Peed to deny the motion for reconsideration of bond and that a forthcoming jury in Screven County will “ultimately show the world where it could not be shown in New York with Eric Garner, where it could not be shown in major cities like Atlanta with Anthony Hill’s death, but it will be shown in a small place like Sylvania, Ga that no one, not even a Georgia State Trooper, is above the law.”
Johnson also noted that the GBI took a different approach with the Thompson case, arresting him ‘in record time’ unlike previous cases where the agency served as an investigative arm for the purposes of collecting evidence and taking it before a grand jury.
Decision on Motion to Reconsider Bond
Judge Peed said in open court Monday that he expects to issue an order on the motion in 24-48 hours. He also stated that Screven County grand jury proceedings are tentatively set to convene in January 2021.
The GBI has investigated upwards of 70 officer-involved shootings to date in 2020. Officers in more high profile cases, like former APD Officer Garret Rolfe who was charged in the death of Rayshard Brooks, have been granted bond on the same charges as Jacob Thompson. Thompson is the only law enforcement officer currently facing charges stemming from an officer-involved shooting to remain behind bars as he awaits grand jury proceedings.