Shootings suspect may avoid life term Global plea deal might net 40 years for felon in North Charleston case

North Charleston police said Jimmie Harris fired into this home on Ventura Avenue, killing Debra Randall Martin, 49, on Jan. 1, 2014.

He’s accused of killing a North Charleston mother and wounding another on New Year’s Day last year, shooting a key witness in a Walterboro drug conspiracy and firing at Charlotte police officers, killing their dog.

But 27-year-old felon Jimmie Harris could avoid a lifetime prison term after he cut a deal with federal prosecutors that likely would put him behind bars for about 40 years for all those crimes. Less time also remains a possibility.

Under the “global” plea agreement that spans unrelated federal and state cases, Harris must help out in a criminal investigation into another person in order to keep prosecutors from pursuing a life sentence. Details of the other case were not revealed in paperwork filed in U.S. District Court.

The fate of the plea deal — signed by Harris, his attorney and three federal prosecutors in late March, and obtained recently by The Post and Courier — depends on whether state prosecutors in Charleston County and in North Carolina agree in their cases not to pursue sentences that exceed Harris’ federal one. He also must be allowed to serve any sentences received in state court at the same time as his federal imprisonment.

The state prosecutors locally and in Charlotte refused to discuss their positions with the newspaper. If they don’t agree to the conditions, Harris can withdraw his plea.

By law, the federal charges to which Harris pleaded guilty expose him to as little as 10 years behind bars.

Prosecutors and Harris agreed, though, that a range of 40 years to life behind bars would be appropriate for the charges related to the shooting of the federal witness, who survived.

Still, Harris’ attorney said he could ask a judge for less than 40 years.

“We worked out something that’s just,” said the attorney, Bill Runyon of West Ashley. “It saves the taxpayers a lot of money and court time.”

The judge has discretion in choosing a penalty, but Harris won’t be sentenced until all authorities agree to the deal. If Harris’ cooperation amounts to “substantial assistance” in the unnamed probe, federal prosecutors promised not to recommend a life sentence.

The plea bargain marks a significant development in the string of shootings on Jan. 1, 2014, that left two mothers dead, including Harris’ stepmother, and another critically wounded. The tit-for-tat burst of gun violence put North Charleston communities on edge as residents feared bullets piercing their walls during overnight hours.

Local police accused Harris and at least three other men of having roles in the shootings. One of the other men, who was facing lesser charges than Harris’ counts of murder and attempted murder, wound up dead within hours of officials’ May 2014 announcement of arrests.

The man was slain in a similar style as the mothers, but investigators have not publicly connected the cases.

News of Harris’ plea deal angered some North Charleston community leaders, including James Johnson, the National Action Network official who helped lead community pleas for tips during the nearly five months that the crimes went unsolved. Johnson, the civil rights organization’s South Carolina president, called on 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson to void the deal by withholding her approval.

“(Harris) has taken a life that didn’t even harm him at all,” he said. “Who knows what’s going on in his criminal mind? Who says he’s going to be rehabilitated in 40 years? He needs to be in jail for a lifetime.”

Jay Richardson, one of three assistant U.S. attorneys who cut the deal with Harris, declined to further discuss it.

Wilson, whose office is prosecuting the North Charleston shootings, also would not talk about her stance.

“As this is an open, active case, I cannot discuss the particulars of it,” Wilson said. “We are working closely with the (U.S. Attorney’s Office) and (the North Charleston Police Department).”

The District Attorney’s Office in Mecklenburg County, N.C., made a similar statement.

“Our prosecutors here have been in consultation with prosecutors in the other districts,” said Meghan Cooke, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte office. “However, since there are pending charges, we’re not going to be able to comment any further.”

Behind bars since March 2014, Harris remains in federal custody at Lexington County’s jail.

His criminal history is one marked with violence at most every turn.

The son of a man who spent time in prison for robbery, Harris developed an arrest history as a boy, though details of it were not public. He beat a man with a belt when he was 17, and he shot a rival street criminal three times just after his 18th birthday.

He was accused of assaults in jail and in prison, where he spent time for shooting his rival. He walked free March 1, 2013, after serving 95 percent of his seven-year sentence.

After his release, Harris violated his home detention. During another short stint behind bars for Harris, federal authorities said, Martin Louis Ballard hired him to kill the lead witness set to testify that Ballard was the ringleader of a 17-member cocaine-trafficking operation in the Walterboro area.

Harris was released and given another chance at house arrest. But he violated it again and went on the lam.

He carried out the hit on the witness, Ivory Brothers, by firing a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol and a .357-caliber revolver into the Walterboro-area home where Brothers was staying, federal officials said.

Brothers was hit three times as he sat on a couch, critically wounding him.

Federal investigators had not publicly named Harris as a suspect until after police said he got into a fight with Montreal Ford at a Dorchester County nightclub early on New Year’s Day 2014.

An angry Harris, North Charleston police said, then went to an Aintree Avenue home around 5 a.m., knocked and sprayed bullets through the front door, critically wounding Ford’s mother, Sabrina Green, 41.

In turn, the police said, Ford fired into a Niagara Street house, killing Harris’ stepmother, Janet Royal, 52.

The final barrage of bullets came two hours after the gunfire began, when the police said Harris shot into a house on Ventura Avenue, killing Debra Randall Martin, 49. The police said they didn’t know why Martin’s house was targeted.

Investigators had an early suspicion that Harris was involved in the shootings and questioned him two days later. The marijuana found on him was enough to keep him in jail for 20 hours, but he posted bail, then went north.

Harris was then indicted on charges in the Walterboro shooting, but federal authorities couldn’t find him. He didn’t surface until Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said he robbed an undercover officer during a drug deal there, then shot at the officers chasing after him. The police escaped injury, but one of their canine companions died of a bullet wound.

Harris has been jailed ever since, most of the time in the Lowcountry, where he was transferred to face the federal charges.

North Charleston police named him and Ford as suspects in the January shootings in May 2014. They planned to arrest two other people on charges of being an accessory to murder.

But on May 23, 2014, someone went to 21-year-old Terrell Lawrence Wilson’s North Charleston home and fired bullets through the outside walls, killing him as he slept on a couch. Wilson had somehow helped Harris after Martin’s shooting death, the police said.

Detectives have said they have no evidence linking Wilson’s killing to his role in the New Year’s Day shootings.

The local solicitor would not address that issue last week.

Harris remained in jail as the case against Ballard wound through the federal court. On March 31, Harris pleaded guilty to two federal counts of obstructing justice and using a firearm in a violent crime or drug trafficking.

In a twist of irony, both Harris and Brothers, the witness Ballard asked Harris to kill, were listed as witnesses in court documents for Ballard’s nine-day bench trial this spring.

On May 19, U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt found Ballard guilty on several counts related to drug crimes and murder-for-hire.

At issue now is Ballard’s request for Blatt to reconsider the verdict. Ballard’s attorney has asked for an acquittal, arguing that the evidence presented at trial wasn’t sufficient for a conviction.

Federal prosecutors would not confirm that Ballard’s case was at the heart of Harris’ plea deal, in which they vowed not to seek life in prison against Harris if he provides “substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person.”

The obstruction charge Harris pleaded guilty to carries up to 30 years in prison, but no minimum sentence is attached. The gun count calls for between 10 years and life.

Any estimate of a sentence that prosecutors discussed with Harris, the agreement stated, is “only a prediction, not a promise.”

“Nobody can tell what’s going to happen,” Runyon, Harris’ attorney, said. “Only the Honorable Sol Blatt Jr. can tell you what the sentence is going to be.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.