COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Six co-defendants entered guilty pleas in the Upatoi case on Monday.
Two sisters facing murder charges in an unrelated case entered guilty pleas Tuesday.
After lengthy delays caused by everything from Covid to a corrupt DA who ended up in prison, to issues with the Government Center that limited use of courtrooms, the Muscogee County Court system shifted into a new gear last week.
We asked District Attorney Stacey Jackson who has been on the job about eight months why did so many defendants facing murder charges plea last week.
“I think it was a combination of a lot of things,” Jackson said. “One, the DA’s office is pretty much 99.9 percent fully staffed. We are only missing one county attorney. Also, the judges, we are post-Covid, the judges have made an effort to get these cases back on the trial docket.”
And there is also one key element that is often taken for granted.
“Jurors,” Jackson said. “Jurors now that we are post-Covid are willing to come to court. And are willing to be part of the process. Because we can’t try cases with jurors.”
Superior Court Judge John Martin was adamant in the Upatoi home invasion case that there were not going to be any additional delays in the three-year-old case and if plea deals were not hammered out, it was going to trial.
And the simple threat of a trial is what it needs to push prosecutors and defendants into deals to avoid a trial. Chief Assistant Public Defender Stephen Craft represented Anthony Foster, one of the six co-defendants to plea in the Upatoi home invasion. Foster, facing murder charges, was able to negotiate to a robbery conviction and avoid the possibility of life in prison.
“That puts both parties, both the prosecution and the defense, in a position where they have to make hard decisions,” Craft said of a hard and fast trial date. “And quite often in the other murder case, it pled to a manslaughter, which was a reasonable outcome when you consider the big picture of the facts. But that doesn’t happen sometimes until jurors are in the back room and you’re ready to start your case.”
Two Columbus sisters, Ceonna Turpin and Eurica Turpin, plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and two counts of aggravated assault last Tuesday.
The sisters were convicted in the March 2022 murder of 17-year-old Markayla Marshall.
Jackson came back to the DA’s office after spending nearly 15 years as one of the area’s top defense attorneys. When Jackson was appointed DA by Gov. Brian Kemp last year, the office was in disarray and understaffed following the public corruption conviction of former DA Mark Jones.
Did Jackson’s experience as a high-profiled criminal defense attorney play a factor in the deals that were offered – and taken?
“I think the thing that we have to consider now that I am back on this side is that public safety is paramount,” Jackson said. “And, also, victim-witness compliance is paramount, as well. Sometimes, unique situations call for creative thinking. So those come on a case-by-case basis. The number one thing is public safety.”
There are 92 murder cases still pending in the DA’s office. And many of those, like the two last week, have multiple defendants.