A 16-year-old boy stood at the podium in an Orleans Parish courtroom Wednesday morning, a long cross necklace dangling from his skinny neck, and admitted his role in what the judge described as one of the most horrific crimes in the history of this city, long beset by blood and brutality.
Sheldon Jefferson confessed on Wednesday that he and two friends abducted a woman at gunpoint outside her Garden District home, beat her and gang-raped her before tossing her from a moving car.
Jefferson, the youngest of the teens charged, accepted three decades in prison, and agreed to testify against the other two. He will be middle aged before he is eligible for parole.
He was calm during the proceedings, shackled in his orange Orleans Parish Prison jumpsuit.
“I’m sorry for what I did,” he said. The judge asked him to specify who he was apologizing to.
The victim, he responded, and his own mother.
The teenager’s mother wept in the courtroom. She mumbled and paced. She fell to her knees.
The victim, a 30-year-old stranger to them, sat quietly in the corner. She agreed to the three-decade deal.
The woman had just parked her car outside her Eighth Street home on the evening of Feb. 4, when two men, one pointing a gun, forced her into a nearby car.
They drove her around for an hour, stopping by automated teller machines to make her withdraw money. They beat her. They repeatedly raped her. Then they took her back to her block, pushed her from the moving vehicle and stole her car, police said.
Jefferson and Christopher Davis both gave recorded confessions, police have said. The state also has DNA evidence against them.
“You terrorized this woman. She is never going to be the same. You have permanently damaged her and for what reason?” Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Franz Zibilich asked the teenager. “For no good reason. For no good reason whatsoever.”
Jefferson and the two other teenagers, 17-year-old Joseph Davis and 18-year-old Christopher Davis, were each charged with four counts of aggravated rape, as well as aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery. If convicted at trial, Christopher Davis will face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole on each rape and kidnapping count, plus another 99 years for the armed robbery. The other two, because they are minors, must one day become eligible for parole.
Jefferson was scheduled to be the first defendant to face a jury.
His attorney and prosecutors began last-ditch plea negotiations this week and told the judge that they had reached a resolution. But the deal stalled for two days.
Wednesday morning, for the second day in a row, Jefferson and his attorney met in the judge’s chambers with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli.
The teenager’s mother sat in the courtroom, crying, at one point arguing loudly with his defense attorney about the sentence the boy would receive. She smacked a bench and stormed out of the room, then back in again. She rocked in her seat and put her head against the bench in front of her.
Zibilich, who has chided both sides for waiting until the 11th hour to work out of a deal, grew increasingly irked at the delay. About an hour into Wednesday’s negotiations he threatened to call for a jury and move to trial.
Another hour passed. The parties re-emerged from the judge’s chambers. Prosecutors told the court that the victim agreed to allow Jefferson to plead guilty to the reduced charges forcible rape and second-degree kidnapping, along with armed robbery, for a total of 30 years.
Zibilich said he only accepted the three-decade deal because the victim encouraged it. He would have preferred to hand him decades more.
“This is the worst of the worst,” Zibilich told him. “This court would have no problem giving you 60, 80, 90 years.”
Jefferson somewhat attempted to defend what he had done.
“If I knew they were going to do that, I would never got in the car,” he told the judge. “I didn’t know they was going to do that, your honor.”
The judge was incensed, told him to turn around, to look at his victim, to apologize.
Jefferson’s attorney, Morris Reed, told the court that his client has a mental illness. He had been on Seroquel, an anti-psychotic prescription drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He did not specify what condition Jefferson suffers. But he has not, Reed said, seen a psychiatrist in the eight months that he has been at Orleans Parish Prison.
The judge ordered that he remain under protective custody at the city jail until the two remaining cases are resolved. Both Christopher Davis and Joseph Davis, who are not related, were scheduled to return to court on Friday.
If either goes to trial, Jefferson will be called to the witness stand to testify against them.