How the justice system allows convicted killers to serve probation

Published: Dec. 19, 2022 at 3:05 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 19, 2022 at 7:57 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - In a Chatham County courtroom back in May, a man indicted for murder faced the victim’s mother. She spoke into a microphone, and told her son’s convicted killer she had forgiven him for what he did.

But she was scared for her life, she said. They were in court together because he had struck a plea deal with prosecutors.

The deal allowed him to plead guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and get out of jail and go home on probation. Similar courtroom scenes have played out over the past two years as victims’ families disagreed with the terms of the deals and worried for their safety.

Prosecutors proceeded anyway.

Since the start of the pandemic, the backlog of criminal cases has reached historic levels across the country as courtroom proceedings slowed. But in Chatham County, a WTOC Investigation has found a faster pace of murder cases being closed this year compared to years past.

The Chatham County District Attorney’s Office has negotiated more deals in murder cases in 2022 than the last five years combined. Most of the offenders who took one of those plea deals agreed to reduced charges and in several cases drastically reduced sentences, including several convicted killers who went home on probation.

Vera Henneghan strongly opposed the deal her son’s killer received back in May. She tried everything she could do to stop it. She made the court aware of his violent past.

But the deal moved ahead any way and it’s led to her mistrust in the justice system.

“It’s one thing to lose your child in a murder. It’s another thing when you can’t get the help from the police, the DA,” Henneghan said. “It’s not like I’m bashing the whole court system. That’s not what this is about. This is about a certain, specific team that have not been doing their job.”

“The person they said killed my son”

On the night of June 11, 2019, her son Devonte Henneghan was playing video games with four friends inside a house on Damascus Road in Savannah. His friends later told police they heard a knock at the door and then two armed men forced their way inside. They pointed their guns, told them to “lay it down.”

After Devonte put up his hands, the gunmen starting shooting. The first call for help came from inside the house. A woman in a back room of the house heard rapid fire gunshots and begged dispatchers to send police and an ambulance. When she opened the door, she discovered four people shot in the living room.

Two of them survived serious injuries. But Devonte did not. He had been shot 12 times. One of the shooters - James Fields Jr. - also died at the scene. Police found one of the guns used in the attack, a semi-automatic AK-47 style pistol. Three weeks later, police arrested Derek Gallop Jr. on charges of murder.

A detective shared the news with Devonte’s mother.

”She was so excited they had found the person they said killed my son,” said Vera Henneghen. “She was super confident.”

From that point, the case proceeded like most major felony crimes cases. A Chatham County grand jury indicted Gallop on the murder charges. He faced up to life in prison without parole because of his previous armed robbery conviction.

At the time police charged him with murder, Gallop was on federal supervised release for the conviction. The pandemic stalled the murder case for more than a year.

Court filings from earlier this year showed the case began to move toward a trial date. But in April, things took a hard turn.

Devonte’s mother heard about a plea deal. Not until she faced Gallop in court did she learn the details of the deal.

She prepared her victim’s impact statement and researched his criminal record. She learned he had served years in federal prison for armed robbery and that two weeks before her son was killed, a federal halfway house in Savannah sent Gallop home on probation to finish his 3-year sentence of supervised release.

He was on federal probation at the time he was charged with murder.

In court, she shared those details, but it didn’t change the outcome.

Gallop pleaded guilty to manslaughter, not murder. In exchange, prosecutors and the judge agreed to let him out of jail to finish the rest of his 20-year sentence on probation.

”It’s like I told him in court. ‘I forgive him. However, I feel like the system has failed you as well as myself and that’s why we’re here today.’”

“We considered that a win”

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones calls the deal and deals like it, a win.

”It’s better than trying a case where the evidence is not strong and then there’s an acquittal and a defendant goes free,” she said. “So, at least this way there is some acceptance of responsibility. In our office, we considered that a win.”

After weeks of asking for an interview about this case and the number of plea deals, Jones met with WTOC Investigates for 10 minutes.

“There was an eyewitness who was no longer available to testify to put the smoking gun in the shooter’s hands, per say. And that is not any fault of the prosecutor’s office,” she said.

Jones also blamed Savannah Police Department investigators for a lack of evidence in the case.

”We found that perhaps there was more evidence that could have been obtained early on in the investigation, like the triangulation of phone records and that kind of information, and unfortunately that wasn’t done. That’s not the fault of the DA’s Office - that has to do with the investigators,” Jones said.

The Savannah Police Department declined to comment about the case, which they said is still under investigation. The department said there is another person connected to the case who has not yet been identified or charged.

But it’s not only the Gallop case. There are five other murder cases since Jones took office in January of 2021 that ended with reduced charges of manslaughter and a sentence of time served and probation.

WTOC Investigates analyzed six-years’ worth of murder indictments and how those cases were resolved - either by trial, a plea deal or dismissal.

A distinct pattern emerged. Before 2021, most of the cases went to a jury and ended with a guilty verdict, which meant an automatic sentence of life in prison. But since then, court records show a drastic increase in the number of plea deals in murder cases. All but four of the deals cut under Jones’ leadership allowed the offender indicted on murder charges to plead guilty to a reduced charge.

District Attorney Jones said the data presented by WTOC Investigates didn’t match her data. During the interview, she would not share complete data on the indicted murder cases. That’s despite WTOC Investigates repeated open records request for the data going back months.

She turned over the records after WTOC’s attorneys threatened legal action against her office.

“They have a fire sale going on”

To better understand what goes into negotiating a plea deal in a murder case, WTOC Investigates interviewed long-time Georgia prosecutor Danny Porter. He’s been a prosecutor for 39 years and most recently served as the Gwinnett County District Attorney for 27 of them.

WTOC investigates shared the data about the increase in murder plea deals in Chatham County and the kinds of deals negotiated.

“It seems like if there’s that many of them, there is an effort to clear the docket. They have a fire sale going on,” Porter said. “That’s not a way, to me, to deal with a murder case. If you’re going to clear the books, clear with the less serious cases, don’t do it with a murder case.”

He said, in general, for a murder indictment to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter is rare.

”Normally, we would ask for 20 years in prison because our attitude was the defendant was getting the benefit because he wasn’t serving life.”

But he said, for a prosecutor to give probation for a manslaughter plea deal is even more rare.

”I’ve never done it,” he said.

A WTOC Investigation found his philosophy mostly held true in Chatham County before Jones took office. Probation for manslaughter, Porter said, is problematic because of how criminals are supervised.

”In general, we don’t do a good job in this state of monitoring people who have been released from prison who are placed on probation and part of that is the case load is so high,” he said. ”If we did a better job of supervising released inmates, then we would see the crime rate go down.”

Porter reviewed the plea hearing transcript in the Gallop case.

”If all you’ve got in that is an eyewitness identification and looking at the circumstances of this one - that’s not a very strong case. So, the prosecutor’s got an indicted case for murder, with enough to arrest, but a less than a 50 percent chance of winning at trial,” he said. “That may have been all he would take. I mean, when you’re in that situation where you’re plea bargaining and sometimes the defendant holds the upper hand.”

There is a risk to public safety when you sentence a violent offender to probation. It’s not an easy decision for a prosecutor to make, he said.

”Because you know if you go to trial your chances are you’re not going to succeed, but yet you have a dangerous individual you can put under court control. I mean, you’re betting he’s going to fail,” Porter said.

As it turns out, Gallop did fail when he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He failed the terms of his federal probation.

Devonte’s mother knew about his federal case when she faced him in court.

”It’s like I told him in court, ‘I forgive him. However, I feel like the system has failed you as well as myself and that’s why we’re here today.’”

Gallop is now back in federal prison serving a two-year sentence for violating his federal probation after he was convicted of killing her son. He’s set to be released in August 2024.

Under Georgia law, a person who pleads guilty to manslaughter is eligible for probation. Probation records in Georgia are considered a state secret, so we don’t know how those who are sentenced are being monitored.

His defense attorney in the federal case declined to comment. WTOC Investigates repeatedly called and emailed Gallop’s public defender in the murder case, but he did not respond.

The Christmas holiday season is a difficult time of the year for Devonte’s family, especially with his birthday this past week. Over the weekend, the family channeled their grief into a toy drive to help a family in need.

“If it’s too late to make changes in my case, maybe it will help the next mother who loses a child in this way,” she said.

Please click here if you would like to read the court transcripts of other negotiated deals.

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