Lisa Lebis sobs during her sentencing hearing with public defender Kenneth Ellis. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — The mother of slain Clayton County Police Officer Sean Callahan was incensed that the woman convicted of his murder portrayed herself as a victim.
“Don’t you dare speak to me,” said Darlene Callahan Rogers from the witness stand Monday to convicted killer Lisa Lebis.
As Rogers gave an emotional victim’s impact statement prior to sentencing, Lebis suddenly shouted from the defense table.
“I didn’t shoot him,” she said. “And my husband is dead because he shot him.”
Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier denied Lebis’ request to leave the proceedings before he pronounced her sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 35 years.
Lebis, 41, of McDonough was convicted of felony murder and 12 other counts in the Dec. 17, 2012, shooting that claimed Callahan’s life. She is the first woman to be convicted of murder in the death of a Clayton County police officer and the third in Clayton since February 2013 to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
The other two women were each convicted of killing a relative. Lebis didn’t pull the trigger that killed Callahan but did nothing to warn officers her husband, Tremaine Lebis, was armed and dangerous, and hindered efforts to save Callahan’s life, according to testimony.
The jury deliberated the case for more than 16 hours over four days, believed to be a record in Clayton County. One juror had to be replaced with an alternate. The entire panel left the courthouse Monday without speaking to attorneys in the case.
Lebis was acquitted on charges she used obscene language toward two motel workers and on a charge of theft by receiving stolen property in connection with a stolen handgun found in her motel room.
Callahan’s former girlfriend, Melody Benjamin, accompanied Rogers to the stand Monday but did not speak. Rogers wept as she talked about her only son.
“Saturday was his birthday,” she said. “He would have been 26. He was the most wonderful son a mother could ask for. He was kind and loving and we were so close. He was my best friend.”
Rogers said she and Callahan spoke every day, sometimes five or six times.
She asked Collier to give Lebis the maximum punishment allowed.
“She doesn’t deserve to walk the streets,” said Rogers.
Clayton County Police Chief Greg Porter also testified, telling Collier the death of the first Clayton County police officer by gunfire in the line of duty has taken its toll on the department.
“It’s been very devastating,” he said. “Words can’t describe the feelings. This day brings back all the memories of this particular individual. I’ve heard nothing but good about Officer Callahan.”
After the sentencing, Porter issued a formal statement.
“I will continue to ensure that my department remains mindful of the sacrifice made by Officer Sean Louis Callahan on behalf of his community, and further vow to never allow the Clayton County Police Department to lose sight of the eternal bond between this agency and the Callahan family,” he said.
District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson and Senior Assistant District Attorney Jeff Gore prosecuted the case. They presented evidence of Lebis’ four prior felony convictions as proof she was eligible for a sentence without parole under Georgia’s “three strikes” law.
Public defender Kenneth Ellis argued that a 2004 conviction for aggravated assault was too old to be considered under the provision. He also tried for a second time to claim Lebis suffers “certain psychological problems” that should mitigate her actions.
“There is no evidence to that,” said Lawson, in objecting to the evidence being presented. “The only thing there is is a self-serving declaration she provided jail intake when she was arrested.”
Collier agreed and wouldn’t allow Ellis to present Lebis’ alleged medical conditions.
Collier did allow Lebis, who didn’t take the stand during the trial, to make a final statement before sentencing. She did not offer an apology to Callahan’s family.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “I was just there. I felt bad my husband killed him. I have a son the same age.”
As he imposed the sentence, Collier told Lebis she was getting what she deserved.
“Judging by the way you lived your life, you are deserving of what you’re about to get,” he said.
For Lawson and Gore, the conviction was a confirmation of their belief in the case.
“I’ve talked to other prosecutors around the state and none of them thought this case could be won,” said Lawson.
Gore said the case would have been prosecuted even if Callahan hadn’t been a police officer.
“Certainly law enforcement officers hold down the line between us and criminals in society,” said Gore. “But we protect everyone and we would have pursued this case if it’d had been anyone.”
Lebis was convicted under Georgia’s party to a crime law, the statute that allows for accomplices to be charged with murder if someone dies during the commission of a felony even if they don’t commit the act.
Lawson and Gore presented witness and testimony proving that Lebis knew or should have known her husband was armed and dangerous to police officers. He previously spent nearly 20 years in prison for shooting someone in the head in Gwinnett County and, according to Lebis, told her often that he would not return to prison.
In fact, Officer Waymando Brown testified that Tremaine Lebis uttered those very words before running from him and Callahan the day of the shooting at Motel 6 in Stockbridge.
Tremaine Lebis led the two officers behind a motel building, trapping them on a narrow path before the wall and an embankment before pulling a firearm from a concealed fanny pack and firing. Both officers returned fire and Lebis died at the scene.
Callahan was hit three times with one bullet and died about 14 hours later at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Despite her protestations of innocence, Gore said Lisa Lebis knew what her husband was capable of. The state presented evidence of his most recent conviction, in Henry County, involving possession of firearms by a convicted felon. Tremaine Lebis shot himself but told police he was ambushed by a sniper. His wife, although also a felon, was a witness in that case and not prosecuted. He was released from prison in that case seven months before killing Callahan.
“I think the prior case in Henry County was huge,” said Gore. “If that didn’t send a message to her that he was dangerous and that nothing was going to keep him from having guns, nothing would.”
Lawson said Lebis’ behavior during the Dec. 17, 2012, incident were crucial.
“I truly believe if she hadn’t helped in him the manner she did that day, Sean Callahan would still be alive,” said Lawson. “They really were like Bonnie and Clyde, without the bank robberies. They were lawless renegades. She had no empathy whatsoever for Officer Callahan’s family. She is incredibly selfish.”
Rogers said after the sentencing that her emotions were bittersweet.
“I am happy with the outcome,” she said, still holding onto Benjamin in the courthouse hallway. “But it doesn’t bring him back. It should set a precedent for future cases, though.”
Rogers smiled, thinking of her lost son. All Callahan wanted to do was be a police officer, she has said. He paid his own way through the police academy and had worked for Clayton County four months before he was killed.
Rogers raised Callahan and a daughter as a single mother. Her daughter is grown, married and expecting her first child, a daughter, in June. There is hope for the future, Rogers said.
“We know that the baby’s middle name will be Sean,” she said. “She’s going to know all about her Uncle Sean and what he did. You know, Sean took two people off the streets that day. I’m very proud of him.”