It was during the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday when a Putnam County sheriff’s deputy rousted accused killers Ricky Dubose and Donnie Russell Rowe, sleeping in their bunks in a Tennessee jail, for the long ride back to Middle Georgia to begin the lengthy legal slog a local prosecutor says could end with a death sentence.
The two heavily-tattooed armed robbers from Georgia were captured in Tennessee last Thursday, three days after they allegedly killed two correctional officers who were transporting Dubose, Rowe and 31 other inmates between prisons.
Stephen Bradley, the district attorney for the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, which includes Putnam County, said during the inmates’ first appearance in court Wednesday that he planned to seek the death penalty — a punishment that is being sought less and less in Georgia and nationwide.
“When I first laid eyes on them, all I could think was, ‘How could two human beings kill two innocent men doing their jobs?’” said Denise Billue, whose brother, Sgt. Curtis Billue, was fatally shot just before daybreak on June 13.
Sgt. Christopher Monica, who worked at Baldwin State Prison with Billue, was also killed on a stretch of Georgia 16 between Sparta and Eatonton, allegedly by the two inmates.
Denise Billue said she and her family have “forgiven” Rowe and Dubose for allegedly killing Curtis Billue, but they still want to see them get justice. Neither Denise Billue nor her sister, Carol Billue, would comment on Bradley’s plan to seek the death penalty.
Killing a correctional officer is a capital offense in Georgia. Still, getting the death penalty is much harder.
March 2014 was the last time a jury in Georgia voted for death in a murder case. It’s a nationwide trend with juries and prosecutors pushing more for life without parole.
“We haven’t seen a death sentence (returned) in three years, even in officer killings, which is one of the cases we look to as a sign,” said Mercer University law professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore.
She said juries are rejecting the death penalty option once they learn of defendants’ mental health and other issues, and prosecutors aren’t seeking that sentence as often because of the cost to local taxpayers.
“It’s so expensive. Life without the possibility of parole means just that, so we don’t have to worry about those future dangerousness,” Gerwig-Moore said.
Still, there are 49 capital cases pending statewide.
Rowe is already serving life without parole for a 2001 Bibb County armed robbery. Rowe is serving a 20-year sentence, and not eligible for parole, for a 2014 armed robbery in Elbert County.
The moment the two walked into a Putnam County courtroom, they were greeted with the rapid clicking of cameras photographing the men who were the focus of a nationwide manhunt last week. Rowe, 43, kept his eyes down while 24-year-old Dubose glanced up at a row of photographers positioned in the courtroom balcony.
The first appearance Wednesday before Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell lasted only minutes. She read them the charges — two counts of murder, one count of hijacking a motor vehicle and one count of escape against each of them. She explained their rights and that their cases would be presented to a grand jury in September.
Meanwhile, the men will go back to prison to continue serving their existing sentences. They would not be granted bond, Trammell said.
Bradley told the judge he would notify the Georgia Office of the Capital Defender, which is expected to provide the two men with lawyers.
Neither inmate spoke until they were being escorted out after the hearing when Dubose responded to a reporter’s question about how he planned to plea. “Not guilty,” he said.
Carol Billue said after the appearance that one of her memories of her 58-year-old brother was him caring for their elderly father. She said her 94-year-old father was hospitalized on Monday, adding that his son’s death had hit him harder than anyone else in their family.
“I will always see him as my hero,” Carol Billue said of her brother, whose funeral was Saturday.
The funeral for Monica, 42, was on Tuesday.
On the day of their escape, Rowe and Dubose freed themselves from waist-chains and leg-irons, busted through the heavy-mesh gate separating inmates from the transport officers on the bus, took both officers’ 9 mm Glocks and shot them repeatedly, law enforcement said. The inmates then allegedly carjacked a Honda that had stopped behind the bus. Many hours later, they ditched the green Accord and stole a pickup truck from a business in Madison.
After some 60 hours on the run, Rowe and Dubose were seen driving away from the Shelbyville, Tenn., home of an elderly couple the pair allegedly bound and held for three hours.
A high-speed, 20-mile chase ended when they crashed the couple’s Jeep. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the pair sprinted into some woods, coming out a few yards away at the home of a 35-year-old father who had just loaded his young daughter and his AR-15 in the car so they could flee the potential danger. The fugitives surrendered to the homeowner.
Rowe and Dubose, who was a member of the Aryan Ghostface prison gang, were not told when they would be returned to Georgia for security reasons.
Sills, the Putnam sheriff, said a deputy woke the two men and told them to put on orange jumpsuits with “Putnam County Jail” stenciled on the back. Sills said deputies used “maximum-security German handcuffs you supposedly can’t get out of.”
“‘I’m the sheriff of Putnam County, and I’m here to take you to Georgia on a charge of murder, motor vehicle hijacking and escape,’” Sills said he told the inmates once their hands and feet were secured.
Sills explained their right to remain silent, told them they would be brought before a judge several hours later and then added, “‘I’m going to be nice to you if you’re nice to me…. I don’t want any trouble.’”
Sills said Dubose responded, “Yes, sir, sheriff. You have my word,” and Rowe answered “Yes, sir. No problem.”
Five unmarked SUVs with the two inmates, Sills and nine deputies pulled away from the jail in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at 1:49 a.m. with two cars driven by Rutherford County deputies providing escort for the first 30 miles.
They got to Putnam County four hours later and by 9:20 a.m. the inmates, in different SUVs, were on their way to the prison near Jackson, which is where Georgia’s Death Row is located.