By Dave Oedel
After Andre Bonner, 32, was convicted on May 2, 2015 by a jury in Bibb County, Georgia, of murder and other charges for the 2013 killing at Macon’s Zodiac Lounge of Jamonni Bland, 17, Bibb County Superior Court Judge Howard Simms sentenced Bonner on May 6, 2015 to life without the possibility of parole. Then Simms tacked on 15 years for gang-affiliated charges, plus 5 more for gun possession by a felon. The extra time was largely an idle gesture in Bonner’s case, but was apparently intended to make a meaningful point to those claiming affiliation with the Westside Mafia.
I attended the sentencing hearing, and it was interesting in several ways.
First, there was little to nothing offered in the way of testimonials on behalf either of the victim, Bland, or the defendant, Bonner. Both of them seem to have been largely adrift in their communities.
After hammering the powerful evidence on the basic murder charges, prosecutor Sandra Matson specifically called Bonner out on the gang charges, stressing them too.
Defense counsel Melvin Raines, meanwhile, seemed especially deferential to and wary of Simms, the sentencing judge, for instance by Raines noting that he’d conducted the trial in a cautious, streamlined way, and that should be taken into account in Bonner’s sentencing. Simms’ reputation for testiness not only with gang-affiliated defendants, but with criminal defense lawyers, is getting noticed. That may have helped Raines from incurring Simms’ ire, but made no difference in Bonner’s sentence.
In his own colloquy with Judge Simms, defendant Bonner seemed lukewarm in his denial that he was a shooter of Bland, especially in comparison with Cedrick S. Newton’s vehement and consistent insistence last year in April before Judge Simms that Newton didn’t shoot Udondra Hargrove. Like Andre Bonner, Cedrick Newton was another Westside-Mafia-affiliated person who was sentenced to life without parole — except that the identification of the killer in Hargrove’s death was far sketchier than in Bland’s death. Moreover, people on the street with whom I spoke fingered another killer in Hargrove’s death. On the other hand, to my knowledge, nobody except Bonner seriously fingered anybody else in Bland’s killing.
On his own behalf at sentencing, Bonner stressed that the security guard who shot Bonner twice while Bonner was apparently shooting Bland (Bonner with hubris called himself a “victim” of the security guard) might have killed Bland with erratic shots. Unfortunately for Bonner, even assuming that to be true, those facts would still have left Bonner liable for felony murder. Bonner was in effect arguing that he was just guilty of another type of felony murder than the ones alleged.
That was utter desperation. Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke, who was sitting in the courtroom, knew that law well, as he had years ago prosecuted at trial another case that later went to Georgia’s Supreme Court helping to reiterate the classic legal principle that a technically-incidental shooter still warrants a felony-murder rap.
Judge Simms added the time for the gang and gun charges, declining to let them run consecutively with the murder charge. That could be meaningful if, in later years, some life-without-parole convictions get reviewed because of cases like the one involving Cedrick Newton.
Overall, Judge Simms was notably less vitriolic in his sentencing colloquy with Bonner than he had been a year before with Newton. I attended both hearings, and compared the respective tones. Judge Simms nonetheless made clear this past week in Bonner’s sentencing that the message was to be taken back to Westside Mafia’s affiliates that Simms still means trouble for gang affiliates.
Judge Simms even seemed to mock Westside Mafia affiliates as not being able to stand up for one other in the face of the law, as if their gang affiliations are pitiful in comparison with the law’s iron fist as administered by Simms and Bibb prosecutors.
And that fist sure is powerful. Arthur Freeman III, who threw the first punch in the barroom brawl, got six years and then some for his own drunken punch of Davis for Davis stepping on and disrespecting Freeman. The long sentence seemed mostly attributable to Freeman’s tenuous affiliation with the Westside Mafia as a rap promoter.
Judge Simms seemed to miss the possibility that people who are affiliated with the Westside Mafia mostly as a home neighborhood designation, rap rhyme repository and/or drinking club are never going to stand up for a cold-blooded murderer like Bonner no matter what, unlike “made” members of the true gangster groups that have a firm internal code of murderous discipline. Simms’ own statements seemed to confirm that these so-called “hybrid” gangs in Macon are hardly the kinds of gangs, like the Italian-American mafia used to be, that gave the concept of mafia its iconic meaning in American culture. Judge Simms of all people should be aware that people can quaff a frosty together in their Westside neighborhood, or music-playing club in a neutral downtown zone, without losing a collective sense of fair order and justice.
Neither Raines nor Simms made notice of the fact that Bland’s killing was in many details apparently just a bar fight in which drunken people from different neighborhoods and affiliations — though not so distant that they don’t socialize together — got overly hot. Despite technically being in a no-gun setting, the brawlers had enough guns and ammo to make drunken decisions stick, essentially forever in this life for both Bland and Bonner, and almost for Deion Davis, who was nearly killed by shots in the melee.
Instead of demonizing hybrid gang affiliation as some sort of boogie man, perhaps a more fruitful strategy going forward would be routinely to strip guns from tough-guy felons like Bonner and his recently-prison-sprung buddy John Hollingshed, who shot Davis. Moreover, it makes sense to keep kids like Bland, and parents, including Bonner and Bonner’s baby-mama getaway driver Miranda Pettiway, at home instead of in barrooms oddly open at 3:30 a.m.
Those are reasonably achievable goals. Using unconstitutionally over-aggressive prosecution and sentencing tactics to attack gang culture overall, however deviant that culture may be, won’t work.