Courts news

Georgia's Supreme Court has overturned a Catoosa County woman's 2004 murder conviction, nearly 17 years after her 1-year-old son was severely burned in a house fire that ultimately contributed to his death.

Suzette Marie Calloway, and her husband Christopher Pierre Hicks, were involved in the manufacturing and selling of methamphetamine in the early 2000s.

On Feb. 17, 2001, a batch of meth being cooked in the home caught fire and engulfed the apartment in flames. The couple's son, 15-month-old Chelton, was in his crib sleeping when the fire broke out, causing burns to the child's face, scalp, arms and leg.

The baby’s burns covered 30 percent of his body, and he underwent 10 surgeries to receive skin grafting. Doctors also had to perform a tracheostomy and install a trach tube due to the damage to his airway from inhaling so much hot air.

Baby Chelton was eventually placed with a foster care mother in Georgia who was trained in caring for medically fragile children. However, after a doctor changed his trach tube during a routine visit, Chelton quit breathing and suffered brain damage. The child welfare agency contacted Calloway and Hicks, and they gave their consent to withdraw care. The baby died on June 17, 2001.

After the fire, Calloway and Hicks told investigators that a wall heater had exploded and caught fire. Investigators later inspected the apartment and found evidence inconsistent with the couple’s account of the fire. Instead, they found unnatural burn patterns and numerous items used in making methamphetamine, including pseudoephedrine pill bottles, latex gloves, coffee filters and fuel and propane cans.

A detective attended the baby's funeral, planning to take the couple into custody on felony murder charges following the service. However, Calloway and Hicks did not attend the funeral, opting instead to flee to Kentucky. The couple was arrested in July 2001, at which time officers found numerous meth-making items and ingredients in the vehicle Calloway was driving.

In December 2002, a Rome, Ga., jury convicted the couple of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, attempt to manufacture methamphetamine and creating a substantial risk while attempting to manufacture meth. Calloway was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Fourteen months later, in February 2004, Calloway was again on trial, that time in Catoosa County Superior Court facing a felony murder charge. Calloway was again convicted, and sentenced to serve life plus 30 years to run consecutively to her federal sentence. Calloway then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In August, Calloway's attorney, LaFayette-based Jennifer Hildebrand, filed an appeal of the conviction that lead to the reversal.

On Monday, Feb. 5, Justice Nels S.D. Peterson wrote that under state law, because she already had been convicted in federal court of several crimes related to manufacturing meth, Calloway could not be prosecuted subsequently in state court for felony murder involving the same conduct.

"We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s verdicts, but Calloway’s federal conviction for attempt to manufacture meth barred a successive prosecution for the state crime of felony murder predicated on manufacturing meth," Peterson's unanimous opinion said. "We therefore reverse her felony murder conviction."

In Monday's 20-page opinion, Peterson also wrote that through legal technicalities, District Attorney Herbert E. "Buzz" Franklin could still pursue a conviction for a possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute charge against Calloway if he so chooses. That specific count and the federal count of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine require different elements of proof for criminal conviction.

For now, Calloway is serving her time in Hawkinsville, Ga. prison, while Hicks is still serving a life sentence.

Adam Cook is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He has been a reporter since 2009. He can be reached at The Catoosa County News office at 706-935-2621 and by email at acook@npco.com.