EATONTON, Ga. — After more than three years and dozens of pre-trial motion hearings, the death-penalty trial of one of two men accused of shooting to death a pair of state corrections officers during a daring escape from a prison bus in Putnam County will go forward in a few months.
But when jury-selection in the trial of Donnie Rowe begins on March 1, 2021, in a Grady County courtroom in Cairo, there will be several new faces in the courtroom.
The co-defendant in the case, Ricky Dubose, meanwhile, will be granted his death penalty trial at a later date next year.
The defendants are accused of shooting to death Georgia Department of Corrections Sgt. Curtis Billue and Sgt. Chris Monica while they waged an escape from a bus loaded with inmates being transferred from one prison to another. The defendants were incarcerated at Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville.
That was also the facility where Billue and Monica worked in the transportation department. Both of the victims lived in Baldwin County.
The prison bus escape led to a nationwide manhunt that was launched by Putnam County Sheriff Howard R. Sills. The manhunt included local, state hand federal law enforcement agencies and eventually ended in Tennessee following a series of felony crimes in that state, including a home invasion of an elderly couple, theft of vehicles, and a shootout with deputies along an interstate highway.
One of the new faces in the upcoming trials of Rowe and Dubose will be T. Wright Barksdale III, who takes over as the new lead prosecutor.
Barksdale, a Jones County resident, and former assistant district attorney, defeated Carl Cansino in the primary election to become the new district attorney of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
Even though Stephen A. Bradley still serves as district attorney of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, he will no longer be in that position when jury-selection begins in the Rowe case in a few months. At the end of December, Bradley will be sworn in as the newest judge of the eight-county Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
Bradley led the way in prosecuting the case since it happened on the morning of June 13, 2017, along Ga. Route 16, between Eatonton and Sparta.
Now that Barksdale is transitioning in his role as district attorney-elect, he has already brought on Dawn M. Baskin, a longtime senior assistant district attorney, to help in the prosecution of Rowe during his death penalty trial.
Barksdale told The Union-Recorder in a Thursday afternoon telephone interview that Baskin will be his replacement on the prosecution team. Baskin, who typically prosecutes cases in Jones County, will join a third member of that team, Allison Mauldin, who serves as chief assistant district attorney.
“Alley has done a phenomenal job for our office thus far in this case,” Barksdale said. “I certainly wanted to leave her in place.”
Barksdale, who soon will become one of the youngest district attorneys in Georgia history, said he decided to add Baskin to the team because he and Baskin had prosecuted “quite a few cases together” in the past.
“She’s one of our better attorneys as it pertains to jury trials,” Barksdale said. “She brings a lot of experience and talent to our team. Those attributions, coupled with the way we have worked so well together in the past, just told me that it made sense to bring her into the fold.”
Barksdale said it’s most important to have a cohesive team anytime prosecutors are involved in a big case.
“I’ll take a step back and say, I don’t care what kind of case it is, if you don’t have a group that can work together, trust one another, and talk things through, you’re not going to get the outcome you were seeking,” Barksdale said.
Take a basketball team, for example, he explained.
“You can have five all-star players, but if they don’t play well together, the team isn’t likely to do well,” Barksdale said.
The district attorney-elect said he and his assistant prosecutors are confident in their abilities.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to still be around when jury selection begins next year, Barksdale said it is really anyone’s guess as to how long it will take to select a jury and alternates to hear the case against Rowe, who is currently incarcerated at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson.
“I’m excited that Judge Trammell has given us a March 1 date to proceed with this case,” Barksdale said.
The death penalty trials of Rowe and co-defendant Ricky Dubose should have already have concluded earlier this year had it not been for the global pandemic, Barksdale said.
“I think the biggest impact to it was that it kicked the can down the road and drew out the case longer than it otherwise would have,” Barksdale said. “We’ve been ready to try this (Rowe) case from the time of the original trial date until now.”
Once the Rowe case is completed, the separate trial for Dubose will go forward with jury selection taking place in the Glenn County seat of Brunswick.
Similar to the Rowe case, jurors will be selected from that county and brought back to Putnam County where the trial will take place in Eatonton.
Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Alison T. Burleson will preside over the Dubose trial.