Before announcing whether a 16-year-old would be tried for three murders as a boy or as a man, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw explained his dilemma.
"Taking away someone's status as a child is a harsh, very serious matter," he said Friday morning, staring at a shaggy-haired teenager in an orange jail jumpsuit. "It's important to realize the seriousness of this case. ... It breaks my heart."
Then, Philyaw announced his decision. The case against Jacob Allison will go before a grand jury, and he will be tried as an adult. If convicted on all three counts of murder for his role in an April 9 triple homicide in Lookout Valley, Allison could face three life sentences.
Philyaw then offered advice to the boy.
"This is not the end," he said. "Many times, it's not what we do but how we respond to those things that shows our true character."
In the courtroom, Machelle Shavers wailed.
"Jacob!" she yelled as a deputy led her son away in shackles. "I love you!"
Prosecutors say Allison drove 22-year-old Skyler Hudson Allen and 20-year-old Derek Madison Morse to an RV lot at 4505 Kellys Ferry Road, located off Cummings Highway. There, court records indicate, Allen and Morse killed Caleb Boozer, Jon Morris and John Lang.
Police say Allen and Morse also shot Michael Callan, but he escaped. Callan later testified that, as he lay in the woods that night, hoping the departing shooters wouldn't notice him breathing, he heard one of the attackers tell the other, "Make sure they're all dead."
Then, prosecutors say, Allison drove Allen and Morse away.
The deaths of Boozer, Morris and Lang marked Hamilton County's first triple homicide since 1988.
During Friday's transfer hearing, defense attorney Martin Levitt argued that Allison should be treated as a juvenile because prosecutors are not accusing him of shooting anybody and he was influenced by Morse, an older-brother figure in his life. Levitt also said Allison is of low intelligence -- at the time of the shootings, he was 15 years old but still in eighth grade.
The defense attorney added that his client did not know that Allen and Morse were going to kill anybody. Allison was just driving them.
"I could drive you to a store, not knowing what you're going to do," Levitt said. "And you could go in and rob the store. That doesn't make me guilty of committing murder."
But earlier in the hearing, Dennis Wayne McNabb testified that Allison knew he was driving two armed men. McNabb, the father of Allen's girlfriend, said he saw Allison and Morse pull up to Allen's trailer at 1324 Burgess Road, about four miles from the shooting.
McNabb said he watched Allison and Morse retrieve guns from the trailer before the three men drove away. After the shooting, surveillance video shows the three men together at a Subway, a BP gas station and a Trenton, Ga., hotel.
"His argument is, 'I'm not the bad guy; somebody else is,'" Philyaw said Friday. "But he stayed with the bad guys."
Morris' brother-in-law, Brandon Jackson, testified during Allen and Morse's preliminary hearing in May that the root of the violence was a dispute over money. He said Morse owed a friend named Daniel Antoine $20.
On April 4, Jackson testified, he, Antoine and Morris confronted Morse about the money at the Food Lion on Browns Ferry Road. Jackson smashed Morse's car with a tire iron, and Morse opened fire as they drove away.
Five days later, Callan testified at that same hearing, Allen and Morse showed up at Lang's RV lot with .22- caliber rifles. Police say they killed Lang in his camping chair. Morris tried to hide under the RV, but the killers pulled him out and executed him.
Callan, 16, said he heard Boozer beg for his life in the woods behind the RV and saw the shooter aim his gun inches from Boozer's forehead and pull the trigger. Someone shot Callan, too, but he played dead as the shooters fled the scene. He then ran to his house and collapsed at the door while his mother called 911.
Friday's transfer hearing did not determine whether Allison is guilty. It was to determine whether the boy could benefit from rehabilitation in the Juvenile Court.
At 16 years old, Allison would only be eligible for Juvenile Court services for three more years. Philyaw ruled that the crimes the boy is accused of are too heinous for the court to rehabilitate him in that period of time.
The judge in transfer hearings makes his decision based on whether there is probable cause that the defendant committed those crimes. If Allison's case goes to trial, prosecutors will have to prove to a jury that he committed the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.
Philyaw set Allison's bond at $525,000, and his mother said she would bail him out. Levitt, his attorney, said he expects Allison's case to remain separate from that of Allen and Morse.
"I'm not surprised," he said of Philyaw's ruling. "I've been doing this for 39 years."
As Philyaw announced his decision, Jon Morris' father sat in the back of the court. His son would have turned 25 on Friday.
"I really miss him," Everett Morris said. "His sister misses him. We all do."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.
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