Fourteen-year-old Christopher Thomas pulled on his tan Dickies pants, white sweatshirt and blue and white tennis shoes as he got ready for school. He had been living at his foster home in Hephzibah, Georgia, for just six months, but already was close to his foster “brothers” Christopher Butts and RaShaan Eugene Bentley.
The threesome had just missed the school bus. They couldn’t go back home because their “mom,” Delores Simpson, locked them out each day until she returned from work late in the afternoon. What was about to happen on Feb. 4, 1999, would drastically accelerate the trajectory of Christopher Thomas’ life, which had been spiraling downhill since birth, and end up with him getting sentenced to 40 years in prison as an unarmed tagalong in a nonlethal shooting. Seventeen years later, he is in prison still trying to understand how he got such a harsh sentence in a life that was never really his own.
When he was 2 years old, Baldwin County made him a charge of the state after his mother Shirley Thomas abandoned him and his siblings. She was addicted to crack cocaine and spent most of her young children’s lives incarcerated.
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Christopher remembers, “My momma was in and out of trouble, so it’s not like I got a chance to be like her motherly son. But my momma was in the streets at the time, so it was like I see you, but then I don’t see you.”
The only anchors in Christopher’s life were his maternal grandparents, Calvin and Lillie Freeman. Starting at age 7, Christopher’s school and home behavior deteriorated enough that he would be removed from his grandparents off and on and sent to foster homes.
Over the years, doctors prescribed various drugs, including Tofranil for his chronic nighttime bed-wetting, which persisted through age 13. Ritalin for his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and at other times Zoloft, for mood disorders.
According to Christopher, now 31, he didn’t need medication. All he wanted was someone to hear him out: “I know I needed some therapeutic help, but I didn’t know what kind.”
After several short-lived placements between May and December 1997, he was placed in the Bridge program of, Open Arms Inc., a "safe and structured" group home in Albany, Georgia. While there, he attended the Merry Acres Middle School.
On Dec. 9, 1997, at age 12, he would be pulled into the criminal justice system. It began in a classroom where he yelled, “[I don’t] celebrate Christmas, goddamnit.” Since he was brought up by Jehovah's Witnesses, this was probably accurate. His teacher called the assistant principal, but Christopher stormed out of the classroom, mumbling, “[I’ll find him] my damn self.”
“I acted up because I was trying to get back home,” Christopher explains now. “A child doesn’t want to be taken away from his people.” And to Christopher, his grandparents were just that, his people. “My relationship with them — that’s all I knew, so it was like, that’s all I wanted. I didn’t want nothing else.” Instead he would get legal strike one: “disrupting a public school.”
In the hallway, Special Resource Officer Ted Thomas, now in search of Christopher, came across a male student wandering the halls. When asked his name, the boy replied, “Jarvis Thomas.” The officer continued his search, unaware that he had just run into Christopher, who had given the officer his brother’s name. Legal strike two: giving false information to a police officer.
When he finally caught up to Christopher, Thomas advised him to go back to the front office. When Christopher refused, telling the officer “get [your] damn hands off of [me]”, the officer grabbed the 12-year-old and put him in a chicken wing hold, often used by police to subdue disorderly or drunk adults. What had been a verbal confrontation was escalated into a physical one by the officer. The chicken wing hold hurt, and Christopher yelled and cursed at him as he was escorted back to the office, where he threatened to kill Thomas and the school principal. Strike three, “terroristic threat.”
Christopher was handcuffed and placed under arrest. Frustrated, he yelled, “Take off the handcuffs and badge so [I can] kick [your] ass.” Then, according to Thomas’ written account: "He [said he] was going to come back to the school and kill me, stating they were going to find me in the hallway dead, bleeding from the head." That was the second count of terroristic threat.
That incident was a classic case of what today is called the “schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline” that disproportionately affects black boys like Christopher. A school discipline matter, perhaps handled without a police officer, might have been treated as an internal administrative matter.
Instead, on Jan. 29, 1998, Christopher Thomas, now 13, was sentenced to Wrightsville Youth Detention Center, a boot camp for juvenile offenders. Then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller used his experience in the U.S. Marine Corps to advocate for these boot camps as a molding experience for young offenders. However, many psychologists saw these military models, filled with confrontation and punishment in place of rewards, as "antithetical to treatment.”
That still didn’t change Zell’s mind. He told the New York Times: “Nobody can tell me from some ivory tower that you take a kid, you kick him in the rear end, and it doesn't do any good.”
It didn’t do Christopher any good; he continued to cause trouble and get into fights with other cadets. Nevertheless, after 60 days, he was discharged.
When he returned to the Bridge program at Open Arms, staff members recognized his strategy. "He doesn't care anymore. He does not try to please. He is purposefully trying to blow [placements] to get sent back to grandparents." The Baldwin County Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) was becoming increasingly frantic to find a home that would take Christopher, given his behavioral record.
One solution was to have him admitted to Central State Hospital. Later in life, Christopher would say, “I looked around in there like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Because there were people in there on pills, and I know I didn’t need none of that.” A psychological evaluation on March 30, 1998 just after he left Wrightsville seems to back up that assertion.
Dr. Kelly Hern wrote: "Socio-emotional assessment revealed Christopher to be an immature and insecure youngster who longs for a stable family environment. He feels close to family members and likely reacts poorly when not in their care," and there was "no evidence of affective disturbance nor psychosis.”
Once the doctors realized that Christopher did not belong at Central State Hospital, he was placed with the Georgia Youth Advocacy Program (GYAP) in Augusta, Georgia. On July 28, 1998, GYAP, now the National Youth Advocacy Program (NYAP) wrote that Christopher needed to be placed in a specialized foster care home. That is what brought him into the home of Delores Simpson.
On that day in February 1999, after the three boys missed the school bus and were locked out, they went to the home of Cyrus James Rambo (also known as Lawrence Rambo Miller). The conversation there is in dispute, but one thing is certain. Rambo gave the boys a .380-caliber handgun, which they would call a “Baby Nine.” The boys said a robbery plot was planned; Rambo said he gave the boys the gun for their protection. The boys and Rambo piled into his girlfriend Shontel’s car. The boys were dropped off across from the A-Awesome Jewelry & Pawn shop. Rambo drove off.
Bentley had the Baby Nine in hand when entering the pawnshop. Manager William Lake was in the back behind a counter, with his two children in the front of the store and his wife, Grace, nearby. Bentley approached, shot Lake in the shoulder and then shot the gun case, shattering the glass.
Butts and Thomas began shoveling guns into the brown leather bag they had brought with them from Rambo’s house and fled, only to be caught two hours later. Christopher would later remember: “There were five or six police cars ... That’s when ... I knew I had really messed my life up.”
The three boys were in deep trouble, and given Georgia’s merciless SB 440 law, aimed at juveniles involved in serious crimes, they would be tried as adults. Armed robbery and aggravated assault are among the law’s “seven deadly sins.” Legally, their childhood was officially over.
Within hours of the shooting, they were interviewed by the police without any legal representation, and, given the similarities of their stories, there was little doubt that RaShaan Bentley was the shooter and Christopher Butts and Christopher Thomas were unarmed tagalongs.
Their first lawyer, Charles H.S. Lyons III, remembers, “The outcome was not going to be good. It was pretty clear that they were going to get convicted … and that they would get a lot more than 10 years.” He remembers wanting to try to get a 10-year plea deal, but says Simpson, Christopher’s foster mother, was not interested. Baldwin County DFCS notes do make clear that Simpson was probably most in charge of Christopher's legal representation decisions, an odd circumstance, especially since her own son was involved in the case as the triggerman.
Then Simpson told case managers to stop sending information to Lyons and to work only with Thomas and Butts’ new lawyer, David V. Weber. “Mr. Weber is going to help Butts and Thomas get out of this mess,” Ms. Simpson said, according to DFCS notes written by caseworker Cynthia Poole.
It’s difficult to know Simpson’s state of mind 17 years ago and how she ran her foster care home back then. However, today her house has books, clothes, paper and boxes scattered about, clothes draped over furniture and laundry and trash crammed into corners. She talks of her magic hands as a healer and says Thomas was the reason her son, who was the oldest of the three boys, got involved in the crime, saying, “Christopher Thomas just had a nasty mouth ... I feel like because of him that they got in trouble because he was like the ringleader.”
Though the three boys committed a crime under Simpson’s watch, the state still sends foster care children to live with her and in late 2015 each morning she locked them out until she returned in the evening, as she did with Thomas, Butts and Bentley in 1999.
The boys entered guilty pleas. The sentencing hearing took place on Feb. 11, 2000 in the Superior Court for the County of Richmond in Augusta. Their judge, Albert M. Pickett, was once featured in an Augusta Chronicle article as a tough judge who sent offenders to jail 63 percent of the time. Yet Weber, as he would say later, was relying on the mercy of the court.
Everything was further complicated by Weber defending both Christopher Butts and Christopher Thomas at the same time. Years later, Weber said he was uncomfortable doing this. However, “Their conduct was virtually identical with each other’s and there was no competing defenses in this case as far as Mr. Butts and Thomas.”
So identical that at one point in the trial Weber got the two Christophers confused and had to apologize to the judge.
Stephen M. Reba, director of the Appeal for Youth Clinic at the Emory University Barton Child Law and Policy Center, who is now involved in Christopher Thomas’ case, indicated that today this would not happen. However, “in these older cases, you definitely see more … sort of crazy stuff like this happening. Where a lawyer was representing two people,” Reba said.
Michael Carlson was the prosecutor at the sentencing hearing. Neither he nor Weber ever mentioned that the boys might have been coerced into committing the crime by Rambo, who provided the gun. Yet, just weeks later, in Rambo’s own trial related to the crime, Carlson told the court that Rambo, after taking out hollow point bullets, warned the boys on the day of the shooting, “If you don't do this, I’ve got one of these for each of you.”
When asked about this discrepancy 16 years later, the public information officer for the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, where Carlson now serves, said they could not respond without being provided the complete “case file, trial, and hearing transcripts.”
Carlson’s strategy of describing 20-year-old Rambo as the adult manipulating the boys to do the crime worked. Rambo was found guilty and given a life sentence, which he continues to serve. Rambo continues to maintain his innocence.
During the boys’ sentencing trial, Bentley’s grandmother, Doris McCane, spoke for the boys, saying, “They have never been in [this] kind of trouble at all. They’re slow learners and plus they be at the church all the time with their mother.”
This is when Christopher Thomas’ very bad day at the Merry Acres Middle School as a 12-year-old came back to haunt him.
“I had his juvenile records here,” Judge Pickett said about Thomas. “This is the real world we’re looking at, not some fairy-tale world. Christopher Thomas, terroristic threats and acts, disrupting a public school, giving false name, information to the police.”
What every juvenile justice advocate fears about the consequences of criminalizing disruptive school behavior was coming together. Pickett gave Bentley, the triggerman, a life sentence and Butts and Thomas, the unarmed tagalongs, 40 years each.
“Unfortunately for Mr. Thomas and for Mr. Butts, they both received what I consider to be a pretty harsh sentence at the time,” their attorney Weber said years later.
The sentences were appealed. However, even though Weber said their cases were essentially the same, two separate appeals panels didn’t see it that way. One reduced Butts’ sentence to 20 years; the other left Christopher Thomas’ sentence at 40 years. Everyone involved, except the panels themselves, can’t understand why.
The most befuddled is Thomas, who continues to ask himself, “I had the same charges, same situation, I mean, what was different? Why wasn’t there a change in my sentence?” If nothing changes, Butts will be out in four years and Thomas may be incarcerated until 2039, when he will be more than 53 years old.
In 2009, after nearly 10 years of incarceration, Christopher Thomas would get another day in court. On his own, he had filed a writ of habeas corpus, asserting, among other things, that he had received ineffective help from counsel, meaning Weber. On this day, he appeared before Judge Michael P. Boggs at the Ware State Prison in Waycross, Georgia.
From the outset, it did not go well. Boggs seemed more concerned about Weber’s three-hour-plus drive to the prison than he did about the next three decades of Christopher’s life. Christopher immediately asked for a continuance. His paperwork with questions for Weber had not yet been transferred with him to Ware State Prison, where he had recently arrived. The judge’s response: “Mr. Weber has come all the way from Augusta to be here today. I don’t want him to have to drive all the way back. So we are going to proceed.”
Just before the hearing ended, instead of Weber needing to return, Boggs told Christopher to submit his questions in writing to Weber within 30 days so Weber could answer them. Christopher’s day in court was hijacked from him as David A. Zisook, assistant attorney general, took over the questioning. Afterward the case was left open until Reba got involved.
Today at age 31, Christopher Thomas remains in prison serving his 40-year sentence. His best chance now is via Reba and his team or perhaps a parole sometime after the 20-year mark, but Reba says Georgia parole boards are hard to read. Reba has been working on the case since 2011 and just recently was granted permission to enter an amendment to the writ of habeas corpus from the hearing at Ware State Prison, in which Thomas was asked to submit written questions. Now he’ll have another hearing in Hancock County.
Reba will argue:
- Christopher was deprived of his right of effective assistance given that one lawyer represented two clients in the same case.
- Christopher’s original guilty plea was not made with Christopher’s full knowledge of the consequences.
- Christopher’s sentence of 40 years is a violation of the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
- The sentence review panel’s decision to reduce the sentence of Christopher’s co-defendant and co-client but not reduce Christopher’s sentence violates due process.
Reba says, “I’ve represented hundreds of kids like Chris who have been tried and convicted and are in prison and no case that I’ve come across is even close to as compelling as his case. From a culpability standpoint, I mean he was barely involved in the armed robbery. To his life history, he was put into DFCS custody when he was 2 or 3, many, many placements, sort of bounced back and forth, to his grandma’s house and then away. Just an incredibly difficult life for him and he’s been in prison for the last, going on 16 years.”
Still, he knows that because of the way the legal system works, getting Christopher Thomas’ sentence reduced is not a given. Reba vows to keep trying.
“Yeah, it’s never final … that should be our mantra here,” Reba said, adding, “If I can’t win this case, then I need to stop doing this work.”
Editor’s Note: Kennesaw State University students Claire Bohrer, Kassidy Callahan, Kevin Enners, Ariel Greenaway, Cristina Guerra, Jourdan McGhee, Camille Moore, Anastaciah Ondieki and Jackson Walsh contributed reporting and writing to this story under the supervision of professor Leonard Witt and virtual world expert Gwenette Writer Sinclair.
A special thanks for this project’s funding goes to the Online News Association (ONA) Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, which administers the challenge fund with support from Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.
About the Project
The reporting and editing of Christopher Thomas’ story was an outgrowth of an applied research project that sought to demonstrate whether and how university students could use virtual world (VW) tools and avatars to produce true news stories. A group of 11 Kennesaw State University students shared the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE.org) newsroom. The students were supervised by professor Leonard Witt and VW expert Gwenette Writer Sinclair in consultation with the editors of the JJIE.org.
As the students were looking for the right story, attorney Steve Reba pointed them to Christopher Thomas. His is a story of how a 14-year-old boy would be sentenced to 40 years in prison as an unarmed, tag-along in a nonlethal shooting in 1999. Seventeen years later he remains in prison. Most likely forgotten there if not for Reba, who had accumulated literally thousands of pages of documents, which he turned over to us. The 11 students had to pore over every page and travel around the state interviewing all the people involved in an incredible investigative effort to ensure Thomas’ story got to see the light of day. They were also working with Sinclair to figure out how to turn their reams of information into a virtual world production, while at the same writing, rewriting and editing the text story.
In its crudest form, the Thomas story is one of a troubled child, who the state could not figure out how to handle, who was passed among foster care placements. The state found its solution just after he turned 14. Put him in a cage for the next 40 years.
“Getting to tell Christopher Thomas’ story is one of the most gratifying teaching and journalism projects that I have experienced in more than 30 years as a professional and now as an educator,” Witt said.
It’s an example of the incredible work students can do when given real and important assignments, he said. The students included: Claire Bohrer, Kassidy Callahan, Kevin Enners, Ariel Greenaway, Cristina Guerra, Jourdan McGhee, Camille Moore, Anastaciah Ondieki and Jackson Walsh.
Now please spread the word so Christopher Thomas has a chance at justice, Witt adds, as we all ask ourselves: Has he been punished long enough?
To learn more about the project, its students and other accomplishments please see: http://virtualworld.jjie.org/