LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Robert William Ellis Jr. looked at the family of the man he killed last year and began to cry.
"The nightmares don't stop," he said Tuesday afternoon, during his sentencing hearing in Walker County Superior Court. "They'll probably never stop. I am so sorry. I wish I could bring Jeremy [Little] back. I really do."
A jury convicted Ellis two weeks ago of malice murder after a prosecutor played a video of Ellis shooting Little in a backyard at 408 State Line Road in Rossville. Ellis told police he didn't mean to kill Little, that he tried to slap him in the head with his pistol. The gun went off unexpectedly. (In the video, Ellis immediately lifts his hands to his head after the shot.)
As Ellis spoke Tuesday, Little's cousin, John Linder, bent over in his chair. He stared at the floor, crying.
"Please," Ellis said, "show me mercy."
In the end, though, Superior Court Judge Brian House was the one deciding whether to give Ellis mercy. He chose not to.
Ellis, 46, faced a life sentence for his murder charge. The only issue up for debate was whether he would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years. House took that option away, telling Ellis he will spend the rest of his life in a state prison. Ellis did not react, but behind him his mother and ex-wife wailed. House told them to keep their composure if they wanted to stay in the courtroom.
Though Ellis insists the killing was an accident, House said the act was premeditated. The day of the shooting in March 2017, he pointed out, Ellis drove to Little's girlfriend's house around 8 a.m. He broke the windshield and windows of Little's truck and fired a shot through the house's back door. When Little did not come outside, Ellis drove home.
About five hours later, he drove back. (He later told the police he smoked a bowl of methamphetamine while on the way.) This time, Little met him outside, holding a knife. Ellis said Little tried to swing the knife at him. The video did not support that claim.
"You cowardly shot him in the back of the head," House said.
The feud between Little and Ellis began the day before the shooting. A woman told Little that she saw Ellis threaten his girlfriend with a gun in the parking lot of the Dollar Tree in Rossville, Georgia. Little left his home. A couple of hours later, Ellis said, he returned home to find the windshield of his Mustang broken and his four tires slashed.
That night, Ellis' ex-wife said Little showed up at her home, threatening to kill Ellis and demanding to know where he was.
In addition to the malice murder charge, a jury convicted Ellis of felony murder, aggravated assault, criminal damage to property, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, two counts of criminal trespass and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
For the latter charge, House tacked on an additional five-year sentence, on top of the life sentence he will serve for murder. The rest of the charges will run at the same time as his life sentence. That matters only if a higher court overturns Ellis' life sentence after an appeal.
During Tuesday's hearing, Linder testified that Little was a nice person, eager to help other people. He was a brick mason who helped erect Fort Oglethorpe's welcome sign at the corner of Battlefield Parkway and LaFayette Road. He helped build some of the monuments inside the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
"I have to ask God for forgiveness," Linder told Ellis, "because I can't forgive you. I'm just being honest."
During the hearing, members of Ellis' family apologized to members of Little's family.
"I am so sorry," said Sheila Ellis, his mother. "I can't imagine what you're going through. It's a hole in my heart. I just want everyone to have mercy on my son. If he had not been on what he was on, this would not have happened. That wasn't my son."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.