MOULTRIE -- Teen-ager Jarrod Q. Waldon likely will spend less than a year and a half in prison for the 2000 New Year's Eve shooting death of 14-year-old Atticus Jones.

Waldon, 17, pleaded to involuntary manslaughter Friday evening in what the victim's outraged family called a "backroom deal." Even after two murder indictments, prosecutors said the case wasn't strong enough to convict.

Chief Judge Arthur McLane sentenced Waldon to three years prison, seven years intensive probation with home confinement and curfew, $1,500 fine, 200 hours community service, restitution and no contact with the victim's family. Waldon made bond Sept. 20, 2002, so more than a year and a half will be taken off his prison time for time served in jail awaiting trial.

"We just feel like we were done a real injustice. ... Seems like they planned it that way so we could have no chance to talk to nobody," Atticus Jones Sr. said Monday.

"We can't bring our son back, but we sure don't want this to happen to anybody else," Jones said, adding he wished he had the consolation of Waldon being put away so he could not harm another person.

The family spoke with the judge for almost an hour Monday morning before sentencing but said they came away feeling like they were unheard -- like the decision was already made, Jones said.

The victim's father said investigators told the family they were confident in making a murder case against Waldon, but Assistant District Attorney Andrew Pope told the family the defendant would probably walk with the case prosecutors had.

"As far as we're concerned, he walked sky-free. We would really had rather taken the chance of going to court and risk him walking free rather than to go like he did and got those three years," Jones said.

"We involved the Jones family in the decision," Pope said. "I talked with them about the plea and they talked with the judge this morning. We cannot always agree with what the victims want, but we're always going to give them a voice.

"The facts and the evidence provided to us by the police department and the further investigation that we did in the case, we didn't feel like was sufficient to merit a murder conviction, and that's why we didn't pursue it as such. In pleading to the involuntary manslaughter, he admits that he was the shooter, which he never has before ... He admitted that he shot him, but that he didn't intend to kill," he said.

Jones said Waldon "jumped on" Atticus the week before the shooting, but prosecutors couldn't link any intent to kill, they said. Waldon denied being directly involved in the fight, Pope said.

"He lied three different times," Jones said. "He said my son killed himself. He was at the murder scene with the gun in his hand. He said that "Houdini," another guy killed him."

Waldon's implications that another person was involved took the investigation on a fruitless tangent. Waldon's initial indictment was dropped, and then he was reindicted again last year.

"All this seemed like it was his plan to confuse people and get them on different tracks," the victim's father said.

"For the D.A. not to even try, with the gun in his hand, with the stuff that was going on before then and the investigators saying they found a casing in his trash can from the murder weapon," Jones said.

Investigator Sgt. Roger Lindsay said the casing, other ammunition and a broken gun found at Waldon's residence were unrelated to the murder investigation.

Though several drug agents were on the witness list, prosecutors said that Waldon had not been investigated for illegal drugs, but police investigators did suspect Waldon and other juveniles in several robberies, including one during which an 87-year-old woman was shot in the leg.

The old pistol involved in the death of Atticus Jones, a .22 caliber revolver with a nail used as a firing pin, was identified by robbery victims, but due to a lack of witnesses, they could not make a case against him or anyone else, Lindsay said.

Waldon also appeared as a suspect in a January 2003 theft by taking of $900 from an

acquaintance in Northwest Moultrie, police reports said. Those charges were later dropped, because the victim declined to prosecute, police said.

McLane deferred any comment regarding the sentence to the district attorney's office. Waldon's young age had nothing to do with the sentence he received, Pope said.

"It's been a difficult case -- It's definitely been a difficult case, especially with the family," he said. "As a prosecutor, you want to get as much time as possible and pursue the greatest charge that you can, but you can only pursue the charges where the evidence merits that..."

The evidence the prosecution had was more consistent with the two boys playing with the gun and an accidental shooting rather than a premeditated malice murder, he said.

The boys had been playing video games at a friend's house in the 500 block of Fifth Street Northwest just prior to the shooting, the prosecutor said. Atticus was on his way to church services from there.

Jones said his son was not Waldon's friend, that Waldon bullied his son. Jones also said Atticus left a gymnasium with a friend, but Waldon jumped into a car with Atticus and got out when he got out at a friend's house.

Though the family of Atticus Jones feels let down by the justice system, Pope said he did the best he could with the evidence he had.

"I can't force witnesses to come forward, much less tell me the truth, and that's been the problem all along in this case," Pope said.

Waldon's defense attorney Jon Forehand declined comment.

Tuesday begins the trial of John Sexton, 26, 153 Deer Run Road, who is up on charges of conspiracy to commit murder.

Sexton told an Observer reporter that he had conversations with a friend about killing his estranged wife, but he never intended to follow through with plans.

To talk to reporter Lori Glenn, call 985-4545, ext. 224.

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