By Joe Johnson
The Georgia Supreme Court last week upheld the 2016 murder conviction of Rodricus Deuntae Ward, a Greensboro man who fatally shot and set on fire Athens native and Cedar Shoals High School grad Darla LaDavia Gibbons, who had a rocky and sometimes violent relationship with the man who is now serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In a unanimous ruling released on Feb. 15, the justices rejected Rodricus Ward’s claims that he was unjustly convicted because the evidence presented at his trial was insufficient to support his convictions and that the trial court erred in allowing six witnesses to testify about hearsay statements that Gibbons made to them. Ward also argued that his trial attorney provided ineffective assistance by failing to adequately argue against the prosecution’s motion to introduce hearsay testimony; failing to try to suppress all of Ward’s interviews with police detectives; and by failing to sufficiently prepare for trial.
The prosecution was led by former Ocmulgee District Attorney Stephen Bradley and Chief Assistant District Attorney Allison Mauldin.
Concerning the Supreme Court’s decision, Mauldin said, “I am beyond grateful that justice has finally been served for Darla Gibbons and her family. This has been a long process for everyone but the incredible support of Darla’s family never wavered.”
The case began in October 2014, when a worker discovered Gibbons’ burned-out car with a charred human body in the trunk at a rock quarry adjacent to Athens-Ben Epps Airport.
The car was a white Buick Century that was given to Gibbons as a gift by her mother nine days earlier. Gibbons’ body was identified by dental analysis. She was killed by two gunshots to her head, as two .25-caliber bullets were found in her skull. The car’s trunk was intentionally set on fire after she was killed.
According to the opinion written by Supreme Court Chief Justice David E. Nahmias, the evidence showed that Ward and Gibbons had a rocky relationship that involved instances of domestic violence. Ward had also never repaid a loan that the victim had given him to pay his probation fine. The prosecution presented text messages and cell phone records that showed Gibbons had traveled from her home in Atlanta to Ward’s residence in Greene County the evening of Oct. 20, 2014. She was never heard from again.
The high court’s decision states that during the trial, Ward’s nephew testified that he traveled with Ward in Gibbons’ car after midnight where Ward dropped him off near the rock quarry off of Winterville Road in an area less than a mile from where Gibbons’ mother, Sandra Johnson, lives and where Gibbons grew up.
After graduating from Cedar Shoals, Gibbons earned a degree at Albany State University, and was living in Atlanta at the time of her death.
The Supreme Court’s opinion states that Ward met up with his nephew a short time later without the car. Ward told him that he had hurt a girl and needed to get rid of the car. Surveillance video from the Marathon convenience store on Lexington Road later showed Ward and his nephew there for a couple of hours waiting for a ride home. Ward’s sister picked them up and drove them back to Greene County.
The Supreme Court’s decision notes that when Ward was interviewed by Athens-Clarke County police detectives, he gave them vague and contradictory accounts of his activities of his activities on Oct. 20. He consented to a search of his phone and the detectives found a video recorded around 8:30 p.m. that day, showing him pointing a small-caliber pistol at the camera. The firearms examiner testified that the gun appeared to be a .25-caliber pistol. During a search of his residence, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime scene analyst located Gibbons’ blood DNA, along with a spent .25-caliber shell casing. Ward did not testify at trial.
After his conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court upheld Ward’s conviction for malice murder, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The high court also found the evidence was sufficient to support his convictions, that the trial court did not commit error by allowing witnesses to testify about Gibbons’ prior statements regarding domestic abuse, and that defense counsel was not ineffective.