Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Convicted killers Chaz Ballard and Singlee Soun (in red jumpsuits) sit with their attorneys Karlyn Skall (left) and Neil Smith (third from left) as they await sentencing Thursday morning.
By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — Clayton County Superior Court Chief Judge Deborah Benefield told two convicted killers they’d have to look elsewhere for leniency as she sentenced them to life without parole Thursday.
“My goodness, my goodness,” she said. “Leniency? Leniency? There’s not an ounce of leniency in either defendant’s body. There was no concern from either one that the victim was a fellow human being. I’ve not seen a bit of remorse. All I’ve heard are lies and trying to get out of it. They’ll have to go elsewhere to ask for leniency. It won’t come from this court.”
Benefield sentenced Chaz Ballard and Singlee Soun to life without parole plus 30 years. A jury convicted the pair last month of shooting to death James Johnson, 27, of Mobile, Ala., in February 2011. Johnson’s parents, Gill Johnson Jr. and Dede Icard, and only sibling, Gill Johnson Jr., attended every day of the trial and made impassioned pleas for life without parole for the men.
“I have so much hate in my heart,” said Gill Jr., “I hope and pray to my God every day that I can forgive them. I hope they think about this every day and never see the outside of a jail cell and that they ask for forgiveness.”
His father took the stand and got choked up talking about the loss of “my baby son.”
“He’d worked hard since he was 12 years old and worked for everything he had,” said Gill Sr. “For these two guys who stepped out of bounds and wanna take shortcuts, that’s what they know. My son never had a record of violence or drug dealings.”
But it was a letter written by the victim’s mother and read by Gill Sr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Nelson, that stunned the courtroom with its raw emotion and drove home the impact of the family’s loss.
“ ‘My soul was ripped from my body and I screamed louder than I ever have in my life,’ ” Nelson read the letter. “ ‘I sat on the floor and cried. I face every day knowing I will never see James again. It hurts so much, more than a cut or a bruise. It’s something so deep inside me, so painful, it’s hard to go on. It’s a pain that never goes away, a pain that never gets better.’”
Icard wrote that she was “moments away from taking my own life” many times since her son’s death but it was the love of family and her remaining son that keeps her alive.
“ ‘I mourn and weep for him every day,’ ” Nelson read. “ ‘No parent should have to bury their youngest son. He was an extraordinary son. His children now do not have a daddy. We will never hear him laugh or feel his embrace — y’all made sure of that. Your parents can still visit you in prison.’ ”
The letter closed with a plea for the maximum sentence.
“ ‘I am thankful you will be held accountable,’ ” read Nelson. “ ‘I’d ask Your Honor to give the sentence you’d give to someone who had taken your own son’s life.’ ”
Ballard’s father, Eric Ballard, asked Benefield for leniency so his son could get out of prison and prove his innocence. Despite the verdict, Chaz Ballard has maintained his innocence. Neither defendant addressed the family or gave a statement.
Ballard’s attorney, Karlyn Skall, and Soun’s attorney, Neil Smith, argued for life with the possibility of parole.
“That would allow him to be out at 56 and have time spent on this earth with his children before he leaves this earth himself,” said Smith.
Skall said Ballard is regretful about what happened.
“If you give him life versus life without parole, his first eligibility will be at 58, almost 60 years old,” said Skall. “I realize Mr. Johnson will never come home. Mr. Ballard has a slightly different interpretation about what happened that night but he is regretful and has remorse.”
Clayton County Assistant District Attorney Travis Meyer argued for life without parole plus 30 years because of the senseless, brutal nature of the crime. The unarmed Johnson was shot eight times with two guns inside a room at the EconoLodge on Upper Riverdale Road.
“This should never have happened,” he said. “It was supposed to be a drug transaction but Mr. Ballard and his associates weren’t able to come up with the drugs. They could have called it off but instead chose to let greed take over. They chose to set up a death chamber and ambush Mr. Johnson with an assault rifle and 9 mm handgun. Not only was he outnumbered, he was strategically placed so he was defenseless and there was no evidence he had a gun.”
In shooting Johnson eight times, Meyer said the pair showed no leniency.
“They took the stand and told nothing but lies,” he said. “They were inconsistent with each other and with the evidence.”
“I reviewed their testimony yesterday and many things they said were completely and utterly contradicted by evidence and each other,” she said. “It wasn’t the truth. Clearly, both of them — and one avoided capture for a long time — went about their lives. One even went to a party that night, ‘drinks are on me.’ It’s hard to fathom that mindset that doesn’t allow for concern for another human being.”
She expressed concern about the message the killing sends to the Clayton County community.
“Fake methamphetamine is more valuable than a human life, that’s the lesson in this county,” said Benefield. “This county is swimming in the blood of the victims of these types of crimes.”