However, Starks did not enter a plea bargain Monday, due to the fact that the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, which was assigned to prosecute Starks after the Spalding County District Attorney’s Office was recused from the case, on Thursday filed an emergency petition with the Georgia Supreme Court regarding the plea.
The non-negotiated plea bargain which was to be entered Monday would have allowed Spalding County Superior Court Judge Christopher Edwards to hear both evidence in aggravation and mitigation prior to sentencing Starks. All sentencing options, including life with parole, life without parole and the death penalty, remained on the table.
Prosecutors on Jan. 25 objected to this, claiming a defendant only has the right to a bench trial if the state does not object. In Starks’ case, the state did object, instead stating its desire to empanel a jury to determine Starks’ sentence.
According to Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney Clinton Rucker, of the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office’s Major Case Division, it was believed Spalding County residents should have the opportunity and responsibility to determine the community standard for sentencing in a case such as Starks’ case.
In court Monday, Edwards addressed the court and said that because the Georgia Supreme Court “typically decides those (cases) really fast ... I think the best thing to do, probably, is return (Tuesday) morning.”
Jurors who were in the process of being qualified to serve in a death-penalty case were not scheduled to return to court until Wednesday, but with the outcome of Starks’ plea unknown, Edwards also said the fate of the current jury pool is in question.
“My idea is to just keep rolling jurors over into the future until we get a (Supreme Court) decision,” Edwards said.
He later added, “If obviously a jury trial is required ... I’m not going to hold jurors for months.”
Stacey Morris, Starks’ lead defense attorney, said she objected to “rolling the jurors over,” however, because it could possibly result in a backlash against her client.
“They (jurors) may hold it against the defendant,” Morris said.
“Most likely, they’re going to hold it against me,” Edwards responded.
“Maybe, but you’ll never know,” Morris countered.
“Our position is that we want to enter a guilty plea,” Brad Gardner, Morris’ co-counsel, later said.
Gardner argued that selecting a jury “would be a waste of judicial resources.”
After court was recessed, Rucker further explained the state’s position with regard to its Supreme Court emergency petition.
“What we’re asking the Supreme Court to do is clarify the issue of whether a defendant in a death-penalty case has the right to plead guilty and have the sentence determined by the judge and not a jury. That’s really the issue,” he said. “That’s where it is from our perspective. In a death-penalty case, after you have a guilty plea, you get to present evidence. We’re saying that’s a trial and we want a jury to hear the evidence. We think the law allows a jury to hear the evidence both in aggravation and mitigation. We think the citizens of Spalding County should hear the evidence and make a determination of what sentence he (Starks) should get. Their (Starks’ attorneys) position is they think the judge should be able to decide.”
Early Monday afternoon, the Georgia Supreme Court rendered its ruling, denying the state’s emergency petition, instead finding Edwards did not commit reversible error in determining Starks has the right to allow a judge to determine his sentence despite the state’s objection.