The recent setting of bond by Superior Court judges in both Tattnall and Wayne counties in two high profile and connected cases has led to confusion in the community about whether or not the individuals are ‘out’ in the community.
Individuals who are charged with crimes, no matter how severe, are entitled to a bond being set by a judge if the case is not promptly presented to a grand jury…but that does not necessarily mean those individuals will be released from jail to await trial.
What does that mean for the individuals currently charged in the deaths of Bobby Kicklighter and Jerry Davis?
What does the law say?
Under Georgia law, if individuals are not indicted by a grand jury within 90 days of their arrest, they are entitled to bail being set by a judge. O.C.G.A §17-7-50 requires that, regardless of what offense is alleged, any person who is arrested must have their case heard by a grand jury within 90 days after the date of their confinement. If a grand jury doesn’t hear the case in that period, the court is required to set a bail amount.
This is to ensure that the accused do not languish in jail while the state makes their case. It also allows them to remain gainfully employed (in some instances) and properly prepare their legal defense with their attorneys, while the state preserves the notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
How does a grand jury indictment vary from mere charges that prompted an arrest?
An arrest warrant is generally secured by the investigating law enforcement agency. In the Davis and Kicklighter cases, that agency is the GBI. An arrest warrant is what keeps a person behind bars until formal charges are brought by the prosecutor.
A grand jury proceeding is a formal presentation by the prosecutor with facts and evidence known to the state in hopes of establishing probable cause to move forward to a trial. Grand juries are made up of 16-23 jurors from that particular county and they vote on whether to indict (move the case toward trial) a person or no bill (halt the case, finding insufficient evidence) the charges. A unanimous decision by all grand jurors is not necessary – only a majority is required to indict and it is particularly unusual for a grand jury not to vote to indict a case because neither the defendant nor his or her defense attorney may be present to argue against any of the evidence presented. The accused does not have a right to present evidence that would exonerate him/her. [Handbook on grand jury proceedings]
Grand jury proceedings take place behind closed doors and out of the view of the public. Neither prosecutors nor grand jurors are supposed to discuss the proceedings.
A grand jury is always empaneled but prosecutors can opt to present cases on a special calendar for high profile cases that may take longer to present.
Setting Bail Versus Posting a Bail/Bond
A bail amount being set by a Superior Court judge does not necessarily mean the individual will be released.
As explained above, bail being set by a judge is what is required by law. The judge must select an amount that suits the offenses and a few other factors, such as whether the accused is likely to flee or commit other offenses while released.
Bail is the money an accused person must pay in order to get out of jail and is the mechanism to ensure the person returns to court for future proceedings. If he/she does not, the bail is forfeited. A bail bond can be posted on the accused’s behalf, usually by a bail bond company, to secure his or her release. Failing to return for court leaves the bonding company on the hook, often prompting a search by a bounty hunter. Even in these instances, however, an individual must pay the bond company a percentage of the set bail amount. Until this is done, a person will not be released.
Christopher Sumlin, the man currently accused of firing the gun in both the Tattnall case and the Wayne county case, has two hurdles to meet before he can walk outside the walls of a county jail.
Judge Stephen Scarlett signed an Order on December 15, 2021 because Sumlin’s charges in Wayne County (in the shooting death of Jerry Davis) exceeded the 90 day statute without a grand jury indictment. Sumlin was charged on August 30, 2021 with Murder, Aggravated Assault, Cruelty to Children, and Burglary in the 1st Degree. In Wayne County, he must post a $500,000 bond. He will then be barred from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit (Appling, Camden, Glynn, Jeff Davis, Wayne counties) and is prohibited from contacting any witnesses or co-defendants.
Sumlin must also post a $750,000 cash bond in Tattnall County or a $1.5 million property bond, an Order signed by Judge Jay Stewart on September 29, 2021, because Sumlin was arrested in late July 2021. He is similarly barred from contacting witnesses and co-defendants and cannot enter the six county judicial circuit (Bryan, Evans, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Tattnall counties). In the Tattnall County case, Sumlin is charged with the Murder in the death of Bobby Kicklighter, as well as Home Invasion-1st degree, Aggravated Assault, Conspiracy to Commit a Felony (Murder), Tampering with Evidence, Party to a Crime, Hindering Apprehension or Punishment of a Criminal, False Statements or Writings, Elder Abuse, Possession of a Firearm during the Commission of a Felony, and Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon.
Sumlin was also being held in Clayton County jail on unrelated charges at the time the GBI sought warrants for him – meaning additional bail measures could be in place in Clayton. Sumlin has not posted bail in either Tattnall or Wayne counties.
Aerial Murphy is charged with (1) Conspiracy to Commit a Felony (Murder), (2) Tampering with Evidence, (3) Party to a Crime, Hindering the Apprehension or Punishment of a Criminal, and False Statements and Writings in Tattnall County. Judge Stewart set bond for Murphy on December 15, 2021 at $200,000 each for counts 1, 2, and 3, $100,000 for Hindering, and $50,000 for False Statements. Should she make bond, she is also banished from the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, unless she must appear for court, and is barred from contacting witnesses, co-defendants, or anyone employed by or incarcerated by the Georgia Department of Corrections. Murphy has not posted bail.
Keisha Jones is charged with Conspiracy to Commit a Felony (Murder), Tampering with Evidence, and Party to a Crime in Tattnall County. Judge Stewart set a bond for Jones on December 15, 2021 in the amount of $250,000 for each count (Conspiracy to Commit a Felony (that being Murder), Tampering with Evidence (felony) and Party to a Crime, for a total of $750,000 cash bond or $1.5 million property bond. Should Jones make bond, she is ordered house arrest, must wear an ankle monitor, and is prohibited from contacting witnesses, co-defendants, and any Georgia Department of Corrections employees and inmates. Jones has not posted bail.
Nathan Weekes was an inmate in Smith State Prison, however, following the charges brought against him by the GBI in August 2021, he was transferred to the Special Management Unit at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, Georgia. His current sentences for Armed Robbery run through 2027, so he is subsequently not eligible for bond.
A grand jury presentment will be forthcoming, according to Assistant District Attorney Joe Skeens, once the office receives the autopsy report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In at least the Kickilighter case in Tattnall County, the report from the GBI Crime Lab is still pending.