33-year-old has 21 arrests since ’04
A Jones County man who is accused of killing an elementary school teacher’s unborn child in a hit-and-run crash wants to get out of jail while he awaits trial, but the prosecutor argued that he poses a danger to the community.
Cory Gilbert, 33, has been arrested 21 times since 2004, mostly for alcohol- and drug-related offenses, and he should remain behind bars in the interest of public safety, District Attorney Tony Buckley told Judge Dal Williamson in a hearing in Jones County Circuit Court on Tuesday.
“Bond is appropriate in this case, and we plan to counter the argument that he’s dangerous to society,” said Gilbert’s attorney Thomas Brame of Bay Springs.
Buckley and Brame each called witnesses to support their arguments.
Gilbert is accused of crashing a Nissan Titan pickup into a Honda driven by 28-year-old Mashayla Harper, who was 8 months pregnant and returning home from a baby shower on Jan. 4 near Soso.
He was initially charged with leaving the scene of an accident with injuries and released on $100,000 bond, set by Justice Court Judge Billie Graham. When toxicology test results came back in February and showed that Gilbert had a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit, the charges were upgraded to homicide-killing of an unborn child and aggravated DUI. Gilbert returned to justice court on Feb. 19 and Graham denied bond for him based on the seriousness of the charges and the potential risk his release would pose for the community, she said.
Buckley made the same argument, but three of Gilbert’s family members and a neighbor testified that he has been traumatized and is a changed man.
“He went on nerve medication after the incident,” his wife Autumn said. “He’s had issues sleeping, and he wouldn’t even ride in a vehicle for a long time.”
She described the defendant as “an amazing father and a great husband” who is “very reliable and hard-working.” She testified that he is needed at home because her job as a tax-preparer will end on July 15. She also pointed out that she has the family’s only vehicle now and she would do all of the driving.
“He would not be dangerous to anyone,” she said. “He’s very peaceful. He’s a great guy.”
A past domestic violence charge on his arrest record happened in a former relationship, she said. “It was his ex-wife and stepson … (the boy) was beating on his mother and (Gilbert) stepped in,” she said.
Gilbert had at least three DUI arrests and four public drunkenness arrests on his record before being convicted of felony DUI and possession of methamphetamine in August 2015. The court ordered him to serve two years in prison, DA Investigator Brad Grunig told the court.
The couple has been married for five years and the defendant’s wife testified that he had stopped doing drugs and drinking since they’ve been together.
“I don’t allow drinking in my household,” she testified.
But Buckley noted that, since his release from prison, Gilbert tested positive for marijuana during an investigation by Child Protective Services after an allegation of abuse was made by a teacher and he had alcohol in his blood on the evening of the deadly crash. A pipe was also found in his pickup and it smelled of marijuana, but drug tests have not been completed by the state crime lab.
“You’re telling us he’s a saint, but he doesn’t do it at the house, he does it out on the roads,” Buckley said.
Gilbert’s mother-in-law Patsy Smith and sister-in-law Hillary Scott also testified on his behalf. Both said he loves his family, isn’t violent and has shown remorse since the crash. They testified that they didn’t believe he would drink or do drugs while awaiting trial.
“He knows I would report him if he did,” Smith said, adding that “you can’t be 100 percent sure” there would not be a relapse.
“If he’s in jail, you know he won’t,” Buckley said.
Scott, whose husband is the pastor at New Beginnings in Sandersville, said Gilbert and his family were in attendance for every service and event.
“I believe he’ll do what he’s supposed to do,” she said. “I believe the community will be safe.”
But when Buckley asked if she’d let her 13-year-old daughter go riding around with him this weekend, she said, “No.”
Gilbert’s neighbor Ricky Strickland, a leader in the Dying To Live faith-based addiction ministry, said he believes “the man has had a change of heart” after their regular visits and prayer time on his porch. He said Gilbert would submit to random drug tests, if released, and Strickland believed he would pass them all. There are no guarantees, though, he admitted under questioning by Buckley.
‘A tragedy for
County Attorney Brad Thompson testified for the state, not in his official capacity, but as the first witness to the crash scene, near his house on Welch Road. Glass, metal, a bumper, a tire and rim littered the roadway as he investigated the cause of the “boom” he heard from his home early that evening. He found Harper lying beside the roadway near her mangled car. She was noticeably pregnant, he said.
“I kneeled down beside her and her face was covered in glass and mud … her left leg was under her armpit and she was not making sounds,” he said.
He called 911 and tended to her while a nurse and pastor also stopped and assisted. When paramedics and deputies arrived, he went with Deputy Johnel Rogers to the pickup. No occupant was found in or around it, but the tag and VIN were used to identify the owner of the truck.
“I immediately smelled marijuana,” said Thompson, who was a Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper for more than seven years before becoming an attorney. “Then I found a glass pipe and handed it to Johnel.”
Investigator J.D. Carter of the Jones County Sheriff’s Department testified that Sheriff-Elect Joe Berlin — who was still a sergeant with the Laurel Police Department at the time — got Gilbert to turn himself in.
“He said he wanted to see his kids first,” Carter testified.
Gilbert was taken into custody at his residence in the Rustin Community just before 9:30 p.m. — more than three hours after the crash. He was taken to the Jones County Adult Detention Center and refused a breath test, so Carter got a warrant to have Gilbert’s blood drawn. At 11:45 p.m. — more than six hours after the crash — his blood-alcohol content was .10 percent, Carter said, citing test results that were returned almost six weeks later. The legal limit is .08.
By that time, it was learned that Harper’s unborn child had died as a result of the crash and an MHP accident reconstructionist had shown that Gilbert’s pickup was in Harper’s lane at the time of the collision.
“He admitted to drinking, that he’d caught a buzz, and went to Soso to find marijuana and had been smoking,” Carter said of an interview that he and Grunig conducted with Gilbert two days after the crash.
Grunig then testified about Gilbert’s “extensive criminal history.” Brame asked if he knew how many of the arrests resulted in convictions. Williamson read the list of arrests and asked the DA’s office to find out that information before he makes a final decision.
“This is a tragedy for two families,” Williamson said.
The issue the judge has to “wrestle with” to determine if Gilbert should be allowed to bond out is if “his release would present a danger to the community.”
Williamson said he was “troubled” that the defendant’s felony DUI conviction less than five years ago didn’t have a lasting effect.
“Ideally, that would’ve gotten his attention, and there would have been no more drinking or use of drugs,” he said. “It’s sad that it sometimes takes a tragedy to get someone’s attention.”
He went on to say there is “no way” family members can “assure the court that he is not going to drive … or use drugs if he is out on bond.”
However, he said he would wait until he got the list of crimes and their outcomes before making a decision.
“As quick as I get that list, I’ll make a judgment,” he said.