Mother whose son was shot to death says DAs should be held accountable

A bill creating the committee is awaiting signature from Gov. Brian Kemp.
Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 8:46 AM EDT|Updated: Mar. 31, 2023 at 10:23 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Sharron Starks learned her son passed away while in the car rushing to Savannah.

“They said he was shot in the chest. And I lost it,” said Starks. Her son, Christopher Starks, died from a single gunshot wound during an altercation inside the student union at Savannah State University in August 2015.

The 22-year-old DeKalb County high school alum had recently transferred to the university in hopes of playing football. Starks later learned her son was planning to surprise the family that he made the team as a walk on.

He never got the chance.

Dozens of people were in the student union when Starks was shot. According to interviews recorded by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, witnesses remember the gunman being exceptionally tall.

“It’s like he played basketball. You can’t miss something,” said Spencer Roberts, Christopher’s friend.

Two years and seven months later, investigators arrested Justin Stephens for Christopher’s murder. He’s six-foot, five-inches tall.

When Starks learned of the arrest, she likened it to breathing for the first time in years. “It was like I’ve been holding my breath because I wasn’t giving up,” she said.

Stephens faced life in prison without parole. But at his 2019 trial, the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict, and the judge ruled it a hung jury. Then-Chatham County District Attorney, Meg Heap, promised Starks she would re-try the case because she believed Stephens was guilty. Atlanta News First Investigates confirmed that commitment with Heaps.

Sharron Starks at her son's gravesite in March.
Sharron Starks at her son's gravesite in March.(WANF-TV, Gray TV)

But more than a year later, another district attorney took office: Shalena Cook Jones. When Starks called Jones’ office for an update on a new trial date, she learned the district attorney had offered Stephens a plea deal that reduced his charges and allowed him to serve three years behind bars and 17 years of probation. Stephens walked out of the jail that day.

“I didn’t get an opportunity to sit down with her and ask her why,” Starks said. “She needs to be held accountable, and anyone else that does that needs to be held accountable, because it doesn’t just affect the family. It affects the community.”

Jones told Starks said there wasn’t enough evidence to re-try the case. Starks disagrees, as does Heap, the former DA.

This week, Georgia lawmakers passed legislation that could hold district attorneys accountable for their actions in the future. The proposal, which is awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, creates an oversight commission that investigates complaints from the public. It could also make it easier to recall district attorneys from office.

State Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) is one of the bill’s sponsors. In Gaines’ home district, Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez faces a civil lawsuit accusing her of not prosecuting certain crimes, including marijuana possession.

“The legislature’s job is to write the law,” said Gaines. “The district attorney, solicitor’s job, is to enforce the law. So, if you want to change the law, you should run for the state legislature or for governor.”

According to a letter provided by Gaines’ office, at least 21 Georgia district attorneys are in support of the legislation. Most are registered Republicans.

Gonzalez and other district attorneys in Democrat-controlled parts of the state argue the proposal is an overreach fueled by politics and power. “The proposed oversight committee would not act as an oversight, but rather an overstep,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “The false idea that there is little to no oversight of District Attorney’s in Georgia has been promoted by those in favor of creating this committee, when in reality checks and balances are already in place.”

Gonzelez, who took office in January 2021, addressed the lawsuit in a Facebook post earlier this month. “This attack on my office is part of a broader, politically-motivated campaign to undermine prosecutors who have been elected by their communities to pursue smart justice that moves away from the failed ‘tough on crime’ strategies of the past,” the post said.

Student Union, Savannah State University
Student Union, Savannah State University(WANF-TV, Gray TV)

Chatham County’s district attorney also opposes the legislation. “These bills are not based in ethics, public safety or justice,” Jones said in a statement to WTOC-TV this past February. “They’re fueled by power and, specifically, those who’ve lost it and will stop at nothing to get it back. The voters put me here to pursue Justice, and that’s what I intend to do - whether these bills pass or not.”

Chatham County includes Savannah, which typically leans Democrat.

Fulton County DA Fani Willis has also expressed concern with the proposed legislation. Willis’ office is currently investigating former President Donald Trump’s alleged involvement in overturning Georgia’s 2020 election.

Gaines aid the legislation has nothing to do with Willis’ probe. “District Attorneys and solicitors have no oversight,” he said. “I cannot come up with any elected office where there is zero oversight.”

Jones has also faced criticism for not prosecuting crimes since taking office in 2021. According to an investigation by WTOC-TV in 2022, Jones cut more plea deals during her first year in office than the last five years combined. It resulted in reduced charges, reduced sentences and multiple convicted killers getting probation.

Christopher Starks, DeKalb County High School Alum
Christopher Starks, DeKalb County High School Alum(WANF-TV, Gray TV)

If signed into law, Starks hopes the oversight commission includes crime victims or their family members so at least one person investigating complaints has been through the criminal justice system. “If you haven’t lost a child, you really don’t understand,” Starks said. “You don’t understand how deep it hurts and how it affects you when you don’t get any justice.”

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