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‘A mind full of evil.’ Inmate convicted of murdering COs in escape from Ga. prison bus

Jurors will hear arguments in the coming days on whether to send Donnie Rowe to death row

Donnie Rowe

There was little doubt that Donnie Rowe would be convicted in the 2017 killings.

Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office via AP

By Joe Kovac Jr.
The Macon Telegraph

EATONTON, Ga.—The prosecutor boomed. In a dramatic and mighty flourish during his closing argument on Thursday morning in Putnam County Superior Court, T. Wright Barksdale III stood before jurors and lashed out.

With sledgehammer-like ferocity, he swung the very clattering chrome body chains that the man on trial had used to bash the head of a Georgia corrections officer during a bloody, murderous escape from a prison bus four years ago.

The theatrics may well have helped seal the fate of Donnie Russell “Whiskey” Rowe, a 48-year-old Tennessean who, after three-and-a-half hours of jury deliberation, was found guilty of malice murder, felony murder and other crimes.

The prosecutor’s feigned savagery, a spectacle that brought an emphatic end to four days of testimony at Rowe’s death penalty trial, was meant to drive home a point. While it may have been Rowe’s as-yet-untried alleged accomplice who fired the six fatal 9 mm pistol shots and killed officers Christopher Monica and Curtis Billue, the prosecutor sought to show that Rowe was just as culpable — if not more so.

Barksdale, the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit district attorney, insisted that it was Rowe who at daybreak on June 13, 2017, used a plastic ink pen to jimmy the lock on an unlatched security gate separating the COs from 33 inmates en route to the state prison near Jackson. And, Barksdale went on, it had been Rowe who was the first man through the gate, the one armed with the body chains who whaled on officer Monica as he sat dozing in the bus’s jump seat next to the driver Billue.

“He was the mastermind,” Barksdale said of Rowe, seated across the room maybe 40 feet from the jury of seven women and five men. “He was the key, ladies and gentlemen, that opened the gates of hell.”

Perhaps it was a crime of opportunity, the prosecutor went on. Maybe Rowe and his alleged cohort had lucked into not being properly handcuffed aboard the bus that day, that maybe the officers had failed to follow protocols and made other mistakes that cost them their lives.

The attack and escape, which made national headlines, came a couple of hours into the bus’s trip from a Milledgeville-area prison to one on the outskirts of Sparta and then west toward Jackson as the long-bodied Bluebird crossed into the Putnam County countryside below Lake Oconee.

It was there along Ga. Highway 16 that Rowe, who had been serving life without parole for a 2001 Macon robbery, and the accused trigger man Ricky Dubose jumped the COs and commandeered a passing car at gunpoint after stealing the officers’ unsecured Glocks.

Rowe and Dubose were captured two days later south of Nashville after a wild freeway car chase and shootout with cops there. Two tires from police cruisers that Dubose is said to have shot holes in were on display as exhibits in court this week.

One of those tires, on the floor in front of the witness stand, played a starring and jarring role in Barksdale’s closing. During his hair-raising eruption, Barksdale walloped the tire, whamming it flat on its side. As he struck his blow, the prosecutor cried out to the jury, reminding them how black-and-white video surveillance footage from the bus had shown Rowe using his balled-up body chains as a weapon.

“He hit Christopher Monica with it!” Barksdale said. “You see him tee off! ... Don’t tell me that was not malice. Don’t tell me what his intent was! He grabbed those belly chains and he swung it like a baseball bat.”

Prosecutors then played a grainy, zoomed-in video clip that appeared to show Rowe grabbing a box bearing one of the officer’s pistols as he first breached the security gate. In that instant, Billue, the driver, slammed on brakes as Rowe was attacking Monica. The jarring halt sent Rowe to the floor.

Barksdale said that had Rowe not lost his balance there “might have been a different shooter,” implying that Rowe may have been preparing to open fire himself.

“If you don’t have the intent to kill, why is the defendant reaching for this gun box before the shots ring out?” the district attorney asked.

Then he addressed Rowe himself, yelling across the room: “If you don’t have the intent to kill, Donnie, why are you going for the gun box?”

Still at full throat, Barksdale went on: “This is a man that had murder on his mind ... a mind full of evil and a heart full of malice! He took the most precious and valuable thing from this earth. He took people’s lives!”

There was little doubt that Rowe would be convicted in the killings.

His own lawyers conceded that he was guilty of felony murder — a death caused during the commission of a felony, his escape. At issue was whether Rowe would be convicted of malice murder, which by definition in Georgia code is a “deliberate intention” to kill with “no considerable provocation,” where “all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

Defense attorney Adam Levin argued in his closing that Rowe never shot and did not kill and didn’t intend to kill.

Those contentions will likely be stressed by Rowe’s lawyers in the sentencing phase of the trial in coming days when jurors hear arguments from both sides on whether to send Rowe to death row or to, as he was already doing, spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.

Levin, the defense lawyer, argued Thursday in his closing that Rowe’s plan, hatched on the bus that morning, was “to escape, not to kill.”

“Where is the evidence that Donnie knew that Ricky was going to touch those guns?” he asked.

Speaking to the jury later, Levin said that prosecutors have tried to “dehumanize” Rowe.

Levin at one point asked Rowe to stand.

“He is human,” Levin said, adding that Rowe is “deeply flawed” and has caused a “tremendous amount of pain and suffering.”

Next: Jurors view video of deadly 2017 Georgia prison bus escape

(c)2021 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.)