Friday, August 7, 2009

Grand jury to decide charges next week

Kris Wernowsky

A grand jury will convene Tuesday to decide on charges for the suspects in the slayings of Byrd and Melanie Billings, State Attorney Bill Eddins announced Thursday.

Six men and a 16-year-old boy are accused of the home invasion on July 9 that ended in the Billingses' deaths from multiple gunshots and the stealing of a safe.

The eighth suspect, Pamela Long Wiggins, is accused of helping the attackers afterward by hiding the weapons and the safe.

The grand jury, made up of 15 to 21 members, will meet behind closed doors, hear evidence from the State Attorney's Office, then decide on the charges.

While the decision is up to the grand jurors, it's generally assumed that the seven accused of going to the house will be charged with first-degree murder, the most serious charge possible.

First-degree murder either can be premeditated murder or murder committed in the course of a felony — in this case, robbery. The charge carries two possible penalties: death, or life in prison without parole.

The State Attorney's Office will decide whether to seek the death penalty for those charged with first-degree murder. One suspect, Rakeem Chaney Florence, 16, is not eligible because the law does not allow juveniles to be subject to the death penalty.

Four suspects — Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35, Leonard Gonzalez Sr., 56, Wayne Coldiron, 41, and Long Wiggins, 47 — were scheduled for arraignment Thursday. But the State Attorney's Office requested those hearings be moved to Aug. 13 after the grand jury meets.

Gonzalez Sr. was in the courtroom briefly Thursday. He appeared feeble, walking with the aid of a wooden cane.

One of his two attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Scott Ritchie, said Gonzalez Sr. has several health problems and needs a hearing aid.

Ritchie wouldn't say whether Gonzalez Sr. has had contact with his son, the alleged ringleader and shooter in the slayings. The father and son are housed at Escambia County Jail without bond.

Coldiron, who entered the Billings home and told investigators that Gonzalez Jr. likely killed the couple, according to court documents, also made a brief appearance in the packed courtroom.

Coldiron, a friend of Gonzalez Sr., complained about a lack of water in his holding cell outside Judge Linda Nobles' courtroom at the M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building.

"Can you put me somewhere where there's running water?" he asked Nobles.

She said he would return within minutes to Escambia County Jail, where he's also being held without bond.

Gonzalez Jr. remained in one of the holding cells outside the courtroom and never appeared in court. His attorney, Elton Killam from the Office of Regional Conflict Council, appeared on his behalf.

Long Wiggins, the only suspect free on bond, did not appear either. Defense attorney Patrece Caswell filed written paperwork on her behalf.

Court security officers ushered the Billingses' daughter, Ashley Markham, her husband, Blue, and several family members into the courtroom through a back door. They left in haste after the hearings.

Markham, who is caring for her parents' nine adopted, special-needs children, declined a request for an interview as she left the courthouse.

Additional Facts
What's next
-- The Billings murder case will head to a grand jury Tuesday. The grand jury will decide who gets charged with what.

-- Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35, Leonard Gonzalez Sr., 56, Wayne Coldiron, 41, and Pamela Long Wiggins, 47, were set for arraignment Thursday, but the State Attorney's Office requested those hearings moved to Aug. 13, after the grand jury meets.

-- Suspects Frederick Lee Thornton Jr., 19, and Gary Lamont Sumner Jr., 30, both are due in court today for arraignment hearings. However, those hearing are expected to be delayed until after the grand jury meets.

-- Suspect Donnie Ray Stallworth Jr., 28, is due in court for arraignment Aug. 21.

-- The youngest suspect, 16-year-old Rakeem Chaney Florence, is set for arraignment Aug. 28.

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