Some questions surrounding the worst crime in the history of Hoschton likely will remain unanswered after a Jackson County man admitted in court to killing four people, including his two children.
Henry Lee Stringer, 37, pleaded guilty to a May 2006 murder-arson in a negotiated guilty plea made to avoid the death penalty, Jackson County District Attorney Brad Smith confirmed Tuesday. Jackson County Superior Court Judge Joseph Booth sentenced Stringer to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Stringer was charged with the murders of his former girlfriend, Marvelette Strickland, 29; her mother, Evelyn Strickland, 68; and the two children Stringer had with his ex-girlfriend, J’Majuan, 4, and J’Lasia, 2.
Authorities say the women were stabbed to death and the children died after a fire was set in the small wood-frame house on Pendergrass Road.
Stringer was reportedly angered that Marvelette Strickland had begun a relationship with someone else and refused to reconcile with him.
No news media was present for Stringer’s plea hearing, which was held last Thursday and was scheduled just three days after Stringer’s attorneys made a formal plea deal offer to the Jackson County District Attorney’s office. Last week the court docket for Stringer’s case listed only previously scheduled pretrial hearings set for later this month.
Smith said Tuesday that the family of the victims were consulted before prosecutors agreed to not continue to pursue the death penalty in the case.
“He came to us with the offer. We met with the family, talked with them for about two hours, and all came to the decision that this was the best thing to do,” Smith said.
Smith said Stringer made a brief statement to the judge but did not express any remorse, nor did he elaborate on how or why the murders were committed. The family of the victims also addressed the court.
David Hill, who was chief of police for the now-defunct Hoschton Police Department at the time of the killings, said the victim’s family got few answers during the court hearing.
“That’s what they really wanted: to know what happened, why he did this,” Hill said. “And they may never know what happened that night. That’s something he may take with him to the grave.”
Stringer was the prime suspect in the murders from the first day, but was not arrested until one year later. Less than a week after the killings, Stringer was struck and critically injured by a train in Gwinnett County in what may have been a suicide attempt. He spent two months in a hospital but has since recovered from his injuries.
Hill said most of the year between the killings and the arrest was spent interviewing anyone who might be raised by the defense as a possible suspect, as well as waiting on the processing of evidence.
“Before we went ahead with arrest warrants, we wanted to make sure we had all the forensic evidence and all the testimonial evidence we could possibly have,” Hill said.
Hill said authorities felt they had a strong case against Stringer to take to a jury.
“In this case, I think we had enough evidence that we could have gone through the course of a death penalty trial, but sometimes you just gotta go with what you have.”
The guilty plea means Jackson County will avoid a trial that promised to be lengthy and expensive. Prosecutors had expected the judge to set a trial date at the conclusion of pretrial hearings set for Feb. 24 and 25.
Smith said the potential cost of a death penalty trial was not a consideration in his decision to agree to the plea.
Stringer’s attorney, Joseph Romond of the Georgia Office of the Capital Defender, did not return a phone message left Tuesday.
Hill said he had mixed feelings about the prosecution not continuing to pursue the death penalty, but noted it saved Jackson County taxpayers from a long and costly trial.
“With as heinous a crime as the killing of two small children and two adults, I always look at it as an eye for an eye,” Hill said.
But Hill added that many people sentenced to death in Georgia spend decades on death row during a lengthy appeals process.
“Just the fact that we know he won’t be out on the street to hurt anybody else is a relief,” Hill said. “And the fact that he admitted his guilt in open court was also a relief to myself and all the officers who worked on that case, as well as the family members that lost their loved ones.”
Efforts Tuesday to reach the family of the murder victims was unsuccessful.
Hill said family members reminded Stringer in court of the severe loss he caused.
“They wanted Mr. Stringer to know that those kids would have been growing up, they would have been in school, and they wanted him to know what he took from everyone’s lives.”