Two of the four defendants facing charges for the death of Mr. Bobby Kicklighter appeared in Tattnall County Superior Court Tuesday.
Nathan Weekes and Christopher Reginald Sumlin, Jr. were formally arraigned in court before Judge Jay Stewart this week for their alleged roles in the botched murder-for-hire scheme that originated out of Smith State Prison in Glennville. Arraignments are merely formal readings of the indictment and charges against an individual in open court and an opportunity to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Both Weekes and Sumlin entered pleas of ‘not guilty’ this week during their separate court appearances.
The other two defendants, Aerial Murphy and Keisha Janae Jones, waived their right to appear for the arraignment and remain behind bars, pending further court adjudication. Bond was set for both women back in December 2021 in accordance with Georgia law, but neither have been able to make bail. Currently, Keisha Jones is represented by attorneys Jason McLendon and Matthew Winchester out of Atlanta and Aerial Murphy is represented by Brandon Clark of the public defender’s office.
Mountain of Evidence to Hand Over in Discovery
Sheila Ross, special prosecutor for the state in this case and Director of Capital Litigation for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia, informed the court Tuesday that the state provided defense counsel for each of the defendants with a copy of the ‘first round’ of discovery in late October and early November. She said her office still awaits final reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as well, as the case is ‘very data driven’ and ‘voluminous’ with regard to cell phone records and other digital documentation.
According to records filed in the Tattnall County Clerk’s office, the first round of discovery included a host of custodial statements by defendants, witness statements, police reports and GBI investigation reports, written scientific reports, witness lists, GCIC criminal histories for defendants, and hard drives containing case files from the murder of Bobby Kicklighter, the murder of Jerry Lee Davis (in Wayne County), and an aggravated assault incident in Liberty County which reportedly occurred at the hands of the defendants as well. The victim in the Liberty County case is also a GDC corrections officer.
Ross told the court that they anticipate providing the remaining evidence to the defense by the second week of January 2023.
Slow Going Until Summer 2023
Prosecutors announced in September 2022 that the state will seek the death penalty for both Weekes and Sumlin for their alleged actions in January 2021 which led to the brutal murder of Kicklighter in his Glennville home.
Death penalty cases move through the courts considerably slower than other felony cases that carry life sentences.
On Tuesday, Judge Stewart asked attorneys to plan a tentative timeline for filing pre-trial motions for the court to consider before any further action can be taken. Weekes’ privately retained counsel, defense attorneys Jimmy Berry and Gerald Word, asked for 90 days from the date they receive the ‘second round’ of discovery to be able to prepare motions to file in court. Stewart and Ross both agreed that was reasonable and set a date for mid-April 2023. The state will then have 30 days to respond to any of the motions filed by the defense, so the court set a tentative deadline for mid-May. A court date for a pre-trial conference update and possible hearing of motions was then slated before Judge Stewart for June 2023.
Sumlin appeared after Weekes and his defense counsel, Jerilyn Bell and Donald Doerr of the capital defender’s office, agreed to the same timeline.
Bell is co-counsel on another death penalty case in the region – that of Elwyn Crocker Sr. in Effingham County. Crocker is one of five defendants charged in the deaths of his two children, Elwyn Jr. and Mary Crocker. In that case, the court has been hearing pre-trial motions at least once a month since December 2021. The case, which began in November 2018, has yet to inch toward jury selection.
Protecting the Public Through the Proceedings
Due to the slow nature of the proceedings and the sensitive information contained within the evidence files, additional precautions have been taken by the state and the court to ensure information does not end up in the wrong hands.
During the death penalty notice hearings in September, consent orders were entered into with Weekes and Sumlin’s defense counsel agreeing not to share jury lists for Tattnall County citizens with anyone, including Weekes and Sumlin.
On Tuesday, Ross announced that protective orders were agreed to by all four defendants and signed by the court in October 2022 with regard to all of the discovery as well. Subsequently, defense counsel may not leave discovery with any of the defendants if they are not present with the inmates.
According to the Protective Order:
- Documents provided by the state in the discovery process cannot be shared with anyone who is not a defendant or a member of the defense team or any individual not necessary to the preparation of the defense
- Defendants cannot disseminate discovery to any co defendant or conspirator who has not agreed to the terms of the protective order
- Publication or dissemination of discovery to any website, social media site, cellular telephone, tablet application, and/or contraband cell phone is forbidden
- Discovery cannot be left unattended in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility or left in the possession of any unattended inmate
- Defense counsel is barred from providing defendants or their relatives/agents with home address, phone numbers, financial information, or any personal identifying information of any state witness or anyone mentioned in the state discovery
- Defense counsel must redact copies shown to the defendants if personal identifying information is within such a document and counsel is barred from leaving copies with defendants for their review.
- The order is effective even after completion of the trial, irrespective of outcome, and any subsequent appeals process. Additionally, upon final termination of any exhausted appeals, defense copies of discovery must be returned to the state or defense counsel must certify the documents have been destroyed.
Additionally, there is heightened security at the Tattnall County courthouse any time Weekes and Sumlin have appearances, with additional TCSO deputies, agents from GDC CID, and help of the Georgia State Patrol. Weekes, who is still a GDC inmate, is transported with multiple IRT officers from the Special Management Unit (SMU) at Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison in Jackson.
GDC suggests that SMU is a heightened security facility one step down from that of death row inmates, however, recent headlines have demonstrated that contraband cell phones and corruption among officers plague even facilities which are supposed to be subject to a near-complete lockdown.
Read more about the case from the beginning:
- [Aug 2021] 3 Arrested in Kicklighter Murder Investigation in Glennville
- [Aug. 2021] GBI Ties Man Arrested in Glennville Murder to Murder in Wayne County
- [Sept 2021] GBI: Glennville Murder was Botched Murder for Hire Meant for GDC Corrections Officer
- [Dec. 2021] Lacking Indictment Prompts Judge to Order Bond for 2 in Murder for Hire Case
- [Dec. 2021] What Having Bond Set Means for Defendants in Kicklighter, Davis Murders
- [Jan. 2022] The Death of Mr. Bobby Kicklighter: One Year Later
- [Apr. 2022] Grand Jury Indicts 4 for Bobby Kicklighter Murder, Alleges RICO Violations and Other Victims
- [Aug. 2022] Kicklighter Murder Case Inches Forward, 2nd Murder from Smith SP Contraband Scheme at Standstill
- [Sept. 2022] Prosecutors Intend to Seek the Death Penalty of 2 Parties in GDC Murder for Hire Case
- [Sept. 2022] Weekes Swaps Legal Counsel During Tuesday’s Death Penalty Notice Proceedings
Read about issue with GDC facilities in Tattnall County:
- Chaos at Smith State Prison Continues to Cost Tattnall Taxpayers
- Rogers SP Inmate Killed Less Than 24 Hours After Release from Solitary
- Data: Few Tattnall GDC Employees Face Prison Time After Contraband Arrests
- 10 Hours in Tattnall Co. Court with an Entire Calendar for Georgia Prison Cases
- 3 GDC Facilities Cost Tattnall Co. Taxpayers a Fortune Not Outweighed by Jobs, Economic Impact
Issues with GDC Generally
- Indictment of Another Murderous Criminal Enterprise in GA Prison Is Just a Photo Op for State Officials
- Georgia Dept. of Corrections Touts More Than 1,000 Contraband Items Seized at Multiple State Prisons
- Sheriff Blasts Dept of Corrections Over Convicted Killer’s Transfer, Use of Contraband
- GDC is Silent Once Again on Ware State Prison Violence, Stabbings
- COLUMN: GA Corrections Commissioner Plans to Stop the Bleeding By Applying Band-aids on Amputation Wounds
- REVIEW: 32% of Georgia Corrections Board Members Have Experience in Corrections
- Another Inside Job: GDC Inmate Sentenced for Running a Multimillion Dollar Fraud Scheme from Inside State Prison