Judge refuses to dismiss felony case against Muscogee County District Attorney Mark Jones; 3 co-defendants enter guilty pleas on misdemeanors

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COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – After a nearly six-hour hearing Friday, a Bibb County Superior Court judge failed to dismiss felony criminal damage charges against Muscogee County District Attorney Mark Jones.

This came as three of the four co-defendants in the criminal property damage case against Jones entered guilty pleas to lesser charges.

Jonathan Justo, Chris Garner, and Chris Black all entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges rather than the felony counts they were facing. Erik Whittington did not enter a plea and plans to go to trial with Jones, the court was told.

Jones is scheduled for trial Sept. 13 on felony damage to public property charges that could cause him to lose his job if convicted. The five are accused of damaging the Civic Center parking lot in the filming of a campaign rap video. 

His attorney, Chris Breault tried to get the charges dismissed using two legal maneuvers. First, he made a motion to quash the indictment. Then he asked Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Monroe to dismiss the charges, claiming it was a politically motivated prosecution.

Monroe denied both months, saying Breault had failed to make his case in either point, despite calling multiple witnesses from city employees to a former employee of the District Attorney’s Office.

Breault was to the point when asked if his client would consider a guilty plea to a misdemeanor.

“I think at this point, no,” Breault said. “If they want to proceed on folks being charged with felonies and this allegation of hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to the parking lot, that is the case the government chose and that’s the case we are going to court on.” 

Breault spent much of the day, putting the city of Columbus and the police department on trial, claiming that it was a malicious, politically motivated prosecution just because Jones was on the way to becoming DA. 

Retired police chief Ricky Boren testified and he told Monroe that the charges his office brought against Jones were NOT politically motivated. Monroe referenced those remarks in his decision to dismiss the motions. 

Breault subpoenaed Mayor Skip Henderson and City Manager Isaiah Hugley, but did not call them to the stand and they were released after sitting on the 11th floor for more than three hours. 

Special Prosecutor Brian V. Patterson of Athens declined to comment.

The three who entered guilty pleas were all sentenced similarly and will be required to testify in any trial that could follow. 

Each co-defendant was sentenced to 12 months probation, 20 hours of community service, ordered to pay a $500 fine, and pay $504.30 in restitution. The restitution is one-fifth of the cost to re-stripe the portion of the Civic Center parking lot damaged in the incident. 

They were also banned from the Columbus Civic Center. 

“Truthfully, you should probably not even drive by there,” Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Monroe told Justo during the sentencing. 

Jones is facing felony charges related to the May 2020 incident. As a district attorney candidate in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, Jones had a campaign video that featured drivers cutting doughnuts in a Civic Center parking lot.  

The video features a rapper telling viewers to get out and vote. During the video, a car is shown leaving black marks on the pavement as it drives in circles. The video was shot without a permit, according to multiple media reports. 

At the time, Columbus Police said the two drivers caused $306,000 in damage to the parking lot. They were charged with felony interference with government property, first-degree criminal damage to property, reckless conduct, reckless driving and laying drag. 

Jones was charged with attempting to commit reckless conduct, conspiracy to commit reckless conduct, conspiracy to commit interference with government property, and conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property.  

Justo, who was working in Jones’ campaign at the time the video was shot, entered a guilty plea to two misdemeanor charges related to laying drag, which is the legal term for burning rubber, and criminal trespass. 

Justo, 23, has an undergraduate degree in pre-law and Monroe noted that in the sentencing. 

“I hope you end up in the profession,” Monroe said. “This experience gives you some perspective to offer young people.” 

Garner, 22, was represented by Robert Wadkins Jr., who asked the court to reconsider Garner’s ban from the Civic Center. Garner plays in a recreational softball league at the South Commons. 

The judge rejected that request, even though the prosecution agreed. 

“At same time there are consequences to your actions,” Monroe said when banning Garner from the Civic Center and its other facilities. 

Black, 23, was there because Justo asked him, according to special prosecutor Brian V. Patterson of Athens. Black showed up to lay drag in the parking lot for the video, the prosecutor said. 

Black was represented by attorney Stacey Jackson. Jackson requested that Black be sentenced under the first-offender status, which would wipe the conviction off his record. 

“Normally, I would not want a client to use first-offender status on a misdemeanor,” Jackson told the court. “I tell them you may want to save that. He’s in the minority. I think it’s in his best interest to use first-offender status. … I believe this is why the General Assembly wrote the law.” 

Jackson asked the court to waive the fine. The judge did not do that. 

“The fine is an encouragement so that you will never touch anything that looks like breaking the law again,” Monroe said comparing this to touching a hot stove. 

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