New Year’s Eve shooter in Mobile held without bond under early test for Aniah’s Law

The suspected New Year’s Eve shooter in downtown Mobile was denied bond Thursday in one of the first high-profile tests under Alabama’s newly-minted Aniah’s Law.

The decision came after a tense hearing in which the shooter’s attorney claimed his client was acting in self-defense, and after the judge threatened to have attendees arrested if they acted up inside the courtroom.

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Mobile County District Judge Spiro Cheriogotis, moments after denying bond to 22-year-old Thomas Earl Thomas Jr., begged the people attending the hearing – most of whom appeared to be supporters of Thomas — to not continue “this absolutely senseless” street violence and to “help others to live and to live yourself.”

Cheriogotis also warned people in attendance from heckling others inside the courtroom, saying that he would “put every single human being in jail if they violate the peace and sanctity of this court.”

The stern remarks were made after the mother of 24-year-old Jatarious Reives – who was the only fatality in downtown Mobile on New Year’s Eve – was allowed to leave the courtroom first at the conclusion of the hearing.

“What hurts me when I hear this case is how individual standards have become to what justifies deadly physical force,” said Cheriogotis. “The showing of a gun. Some words, at best. The fact that someone be of a rival group and just exist in the same vicinity of one another. It seems to be daily provocations in the minds of many to kill.”

He added, “I don’t understand how our morals have slipped to a level where these things are just provocation to end life.”

‘Fear in the community’

The judge’s comments came at the end of an animated hearing in which Thomas’ attorney, Chase Dearman, argued that his client was acting in self-defense before firing his gun and initiating a chaotic scene that led to a total of 10 people shot, seven of whom are described as innocent bystanders.

Thomas is accused of shooting Reives in the head and killing him. He is charged with murder. Thomas also faces charges of first-degree assault and discharging a gun into occupied and unoccupied buildings.

Thomas will remain jailed and without bond until his court case proceeds through the criminal justice system, a possibility granted to prosecutors only because of the new Aniah’s Law that voters overwhelmingly adopted as a constitutional amendment in November.

Under the law, a judge can revoke bail under an expanded list of criminal charges, including murder. Before Aniah’s Law, only capital murder suspects could be outright denied bail.

A judge also has the discretion to decide whether a defendant poses a threat to the community if granted bail.

Assistant District Attorney Lauren Walsh, in arguing for no bail, said Thomas shot 16 rounds from a gun that had also had an illegal switch on it. The tiny switch device enables a semi-automatic gun to be used as an automatic weapon in firing off more rounds quickly.

A total of 22 gun casings were recovered in downtown Mobile by investigators. The other rounds were shot from a gun connected to 23-year-old Morgan Peters, who was critically wounded during the incident. No one else, aside from Thomas, has been charged with a crime connected to the shooting.

“His behavior as the initial shooter resulted in mass shooting in which 10 different people were shot,” said Walsh. “It’s created a lot of fear in the community. This was a major event for Mobile County.”

She added, “(Thomas) is a danger to the community. The chances to reoffend are very likely. He did this in front of police officers in downtown Mobile. He came to downtown Mobile with a pistol and an extended magazine and an illegal lock switch.”

‘Amendment is a fallacy’

Dearman said he believed Thomas acted in self defense after first being encountered by Reives. He said that that surveillance video shows that it was Reives who was the aggressor.

Dearman said Thomas had no prior criminal history before New Year’s Eve, and believed he should have been granted bail. He said that without Aniah’s Law, a $100,000 bond would have likely been applied to the murder charge.

“I make no bones about it, but I believe everyone should be afforded bail unless its capital murder the way it’s always been and I think this new amendment is a fallacy,” Dearman said. “This is America. You do not get your right to be free taken away unless you face a jury. Except in Alabama (where) probable cause is enough.”

Aniah’s Law was backed by prosecutors, mayors, and law enforcement leaders ahead of the 2022 elections, and is viewed as a law that could be used to prevent suspected criminals from getting out of jail and reoffending before they court cases are adjudicated.

Mobile Police Chief Paul Prine, who attended the hearing, said he believed Cheriogotis made the right call by invoking Aniah’s Law by not granting Thomas a bond.

“We went through a large hearing today,” he said. “It’s a new law. We all have to figure out how this law is applicable in court and how it will be applied.”

Prine said he believes that, over time, future Aniah’s Law hearings will not be as tense.

“Our hope is to expedite these cases in a way that is not so lengthy,” he said. The hearing, itself, lasted over one hour.

Dearman said he plans to appeal and is hopeful the Alabama State Supreme Court will consider it.

He said that defense attorneys are likely to argue against Aniah’s Law as future cases pile up, and as he believes the state’s jails get overcrowded.

He said there is no incentive in Alabama law that requires prosecutors to expedite a judicial proceeding against a suspect who is “sits in jail.”

“He’s in jail (until going before a grand jury),” Dearman said. “And everything to do with a grand jury is a secret … who is there, and what they do. So he sits in jail and there is no clock ticking. There is nothing. If you’re in jail, you would like to know if there is a clock ticking on when you get back to court. But you don’t have that in Alabama.”

He added, “I don’t believe (Aniah’s Law) is going anywhere until the jails fill up.”

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