Hoping to avoid a harsh sentence, Thurston Cornelius Waller decided to take matters into his own hands and represent himself in court. But when jurors returned in less than 10 minutes with a guilty verdict, he ended up being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Waller, 36, was on trial in Putnam County Superior Court last week for sale of cocaine charges. He was arrested in December 2017 and was offered a plea deal, but declined.
He was being represented by state-appointed attorney Keri Foster Thompson, of Milledgeville, but two weeks before the trial, he told the court that he wanted to represent himself in the case. At that time, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda H. Trammell appointed Thompson to serve as standby counsel in case Waller needed assistance during the trial.
”I never went to school for law but I did read the books, so I am exercising my right to defend myself,” Waller said to jurors. “I could’ve let Miss Thompson do all this, but I can read; I can understand, so I’d rather do it myself so the people can understand who Thurston Waller is.”
The trial began early in the week with jury selection. Six women and seven men, all white, were selected. During the trial, Waller’s mother and half-brother, who were seated in the courtroom, could be heard commenting that the jury was all white, but Waller had been a part of the jury selection process and had asked each one questions.
Newly-appointed Superior Court Judge Terry Massey presided over the trial, which lasted four days, and Putnam County Assistant District Attorney T. Wright Barksdale prosecuted.
Eatonton Police Investigator Howell Cardwell was the prosecution’s first witness. Cardwell had secured the warrant for Waller’s arrest, which was stamped “recidivist” in big red letters, meaning he commits crimes repeatedly. Cardwell’s confidential informant who purchased crack cocaine from Waller on Oct. 13, 2017, also testified, and a video of the transaction from the CI’s cell phone was played numerous times throughout the trial. Other witnesses for the prosecution included an inmate who had been at the drug sale but refused to testify on the stand; a Georgia Bureau of Investigation state crime lab employee who had tested and confirmed the purchased drug was cocaine; and Eatonton Police Chief Kent Lawrence, Eatonton Police officer Harold “Buddy” Bowman, and Ocmulgee Drug Task Force agents, who each described various events pertaining to the transaction and arrest.
Immediately after the prosecution rested Tuesday, Waller made a motion for a mistrial “due to improper character evidence,” he said, noting one of the witnesses referred to him as a “Blood Gang member.” Massey denied the motion when Barksdale pointed out the statement was on a handwritten note that was one of the pieces of evidence to which the witness had referred.
Waller made another motion for directed verdict, saying “the evidence presented today against Thurston Waller was all hearsay.” That motion also was denied, with Massey saying it was up to the jurors to decide.
Wednesday, the defendant called up his only witness, Investigator Cardwell. Waller challenged the legitimacy of the confidential informant, apparently either confused about the meaning of the word or making a play on words, and repeatedly asked Cardwell how he could “be confident in and trust” the confidential informant. Cardwell said the CI was “no choir boy” and emphasized the timeline of events in the transaction until the evidence was turned over to Cardwell a few minutes later. He noted the cell phone had been recording the entire time until the phone and drugs were given to Cardwell.
Before closing arguments on Thursday, Thompson moved the podium and microphone directly in front of the jury, but Waller stayed back near the defense table. When asked by the judge, he said he was not comfortable standing so close to the jury and preferred to stay where he was.
During his closing argument, Waller thanked the jurors for their time and attention. He also suggested they consider the legality of the use of a confidential informant, and emphasized the inmate witness had refused to say anything when he testified. He then said the state went to extreme measures claiming he was a gang member.
“I have tattoos, I do art and I like tattoos,” he said. “But I would never degrade myself to being a gang member. They are misguided people searching for a direction, although (I cannot judge) anyone who is a gang member. I know EPD and Mr. Cardwell do not really know me because if they did, they’d know Thurston Waller reads all the time. I like to learn.”
Picking up where Waller left off, Barksdale began his closing argument telling the jurors they needed to be told the story of Waller in its totality. He read aloud the handwritten note that was referred to previously in the trial. Written by Waller, the note was a threat to the inmate who had refused to testify. It had been passed to that inmate in Putnam County Jail, where both were housed. Barksdale also described how Waller ran away from police officers while being arrested.
“Innocent people do not make threats, and innocent people do not run out of the police department,” Barksdale said.
Jurors deliberated approximately 10 minutes before returning with the guilty verdict. Waller requested the jurors be polled and when their names were called, each one confirmed his or her decision.
Barksdale asked the judge to “uphold the people of Putnam County’s decision,” follow the law and impose the only sentence for recidivists – a life sentence. Barksdale said Waller was arrested for the sale of cocaine in February, 1999, October 2003 and April 2011; as well as for Violation of Georgia Controlled Substance Act and Driving while License suspended in 2007; possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and battery in February 2011; and driving while license suspended, leaving the scene of an accident, obstruction of an officer, reckless driving, driving with no insurance, speeding, failure to maintain lane and improper tires in March 2012. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills later said Waller had been in Putnam County Jail approximately 20 times, and noted he had been jailed eight times for probation or parole violation. At the time of the trial, Waller was on probation until 2028.
“What we have here is an intelligent, capable human being who has chosen to live a life of crime,” Barksdale told the judge.
When Massey asked Waller to speak before imposing his sentence, Waller requested time to review the case, so it was agreed sentencing would take place Friday afternoon.
Monday, Barksdale praised Cardwell for a job well done with the case, as well as the jurors and the court. Chief Lawrence said he’d like to “thank the jurors for the good job they did to help us keep Eatonton and Putnam County safe.”
Sills, a long-time proponent of the three-strikes law and complainant that it has been “ignored,” said “We need to be doing this on all these criminals who insist on committing crimes time and time again.”