Tears were flowing during an emotional day in Fulton County Superior Court on Friday as Stone Mountain’s Chasity Nicole Jones admitted she was driving under the influence of alcohol last January when she hit and killed Atlanta Police Senior Officer Gail Thomas of Austell.
Because of such, Jones was sentenced to the maximum of 16 years in prison.
Jones, 23, was crying at the beginning of the court proceedings when she entered a non-negotiated guilty plea to one count of vehicular manslaughter and one count of failure to obey the directions of an officer in the Jan. 24, 2012 crash on Interstate 75/85 southbound at the Brookwood Interchange.
And she was fighting through tears as she addressed the court prior to her sentencing, as well.
“There are no amount of words that I can say to get Gail Thomas back,” she said. “I just want to apologize to her father, and to her daughter. Her daughter was my age, so I feel her pain every day. I remember the accident like it was yesterday. I continue to have dreams about it. I know I was wrong to get behind the wheel while I was drinking.”
Thomas’ college-aged daughter was not in the courtroom Friday, but an estimated 40 law enforcement officers, many from the APD Zone 5 that Thomas served, were jam-packed in the courtroom. So were the father, brother and other family members of Thomas.
“The crime will never fit the punishment due to the fact that my sister is no more,” said Earl Thomas, who explained that the fallen officer’s only child has struggled greatly to grasp with the loss of her mother over the course of the past year. “We’ve taken it very hard. We miss her very much.”
The same could be said of the many police officers in the courtroom, including Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson and APD Chief George Turner, who described Thomas, a sworn police officer for 15 years, as “a good friend.”
“She had a heart to serve our citizens and she did that,” Turner said.
With Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard sitting quietly by, Fulton Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski described to the court what happened on the night in question. She detailed how Jones and three friends had started the evening ‘pre-gaming’ by taking vodka shots at a Marietta apartment before setting out around 11 p.m. in Jones’ 1998 Honda Civic for the Buckhead bar Tongue & Groove.
About 20 minutes later at the 75/85 split on the I-85 curve is where the tragic accident occurred. A prior accident on the dangerous curve had brought out a Highway Emergency Response Operator vehicle and Thomas was on the scene helping direct traffic around the accident scene while the wrecked vehicle was cleared.
Thomas had angled her patrol car on the right side of the curve and with her lights flashing, exited her car to divert traffic around the accident. It was then that Jones, who testimony showed was arguing about directions with one of her passengers just before the accident, slammed into Thomas and her patrol car.
“(Thomas) was sandwiched between (Jones’ car) and the patrol car,” Dunikoski said while many officers in the courtroom quietly sobbed. “It took off her leg. She was thrown into the windshield of the patrol car and she died.”
Dunikoski said the defendant initially attempted to jump in the back seat of her car and asked her passengers to say she wasn’t driving. Later, Jones admitted to both drinking vodka and smoking marijuana that night, although the latter did not show up in her blood work.
She did fail field sobriety tests and registered a 0.155 blood alcohol level, nearly twice the legal limit for DUI. There was also a vodka bottle in the car and “red solo cups” with a vodka mixture drink spilled on the passengers during the accident.
Dunikoski told the court there were no skid marks at the accident scene, stressing that the defendant didn’t try to brake to avoid the collision.
The defense later presented an argument that the steps taken by Thomas, including the angling of her parked patrol car and the amount of flashing lights that caused a “blind spot,” had been contributing factors in the accident. The prosecution, though, refuted such and made note that during February’s grand jury testimony, Jones’ boyfriend, Fredrick Jones, had said that he repeatedly told the defendant “to get over, get over” just prior to impact.
Thomas’ supervisor, APD Lt. Jeff Cantin, later told the court how revered was Thomas, who always had a “massive smile on her face,” among many of the young officers just joining the force.
“It was very hard for my crew; it took them months to get over,” Cantin said through tears, later adding, “their mother figure wasn’t going to be there for them.”
Turner and Dunikoski urged Judge Craig Schwall to hand down the maximum sentence. “To give something less than the maximum sentence is not going to send the public the message that they need to quit drinking and driving,” Dunikoski said.
And even before her sentencing, Jones, who also apologized for the pain that she had caused her family, several of whom were in the courtroom, implored others not to drink and drive.
“I was wrong … I advise to anyone that if you have one drink, two drinks, or just have a sip, do not get behind the wheel because something like this can happen.”
Yet despite the sincerity of her remorse, nothing was going to undue the unnecessary and tragic loss of life in the eyes of Judge Schwall.
“In this job, just when I thought I’ve seen it all, I get a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life … the picture of a police officer through the windshield of a car, deceased with a severed leg,” he said.
“It’s a paramount concern to society that our law enforcement officers be treated with the highest honor and dignity and respect and gratitude. … The sentencing range is 3-16 years. I don’t think 16 years is enough. If I had a choice it would be more than 16 years. And so based on what has occurred, I can’t go along with anything but the maximum."