Man sentenced in slaying

Published 8:14 am Wednesday, September 9, 2009

FRANKLIN—A judge sentenced accused Franklin gang leader Darris Lamont Thomas to 23 years in prison on Tuesday for the August 2007 shooting death of 21-year-old Harley Bethea.

Southampton Circuit Court Judge Westbrook Parker gave Thomas 10 years for voluntary manslaughter and five years for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Another eight years were tacked on as revocation for a prior sale-of-cocaine case.

Five years were revoked and resuspended on another cocaine sale case with supervised probation upon release.

“The sentences handed down in these cases were a clear message from the courts and from my office to the gangs in our community,” Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke said. “Gang members should take notice that violent crime and the use of firearms will not be tolerated. They can expect to serve lengthy sentences in the penitentiary if they are involved in these types of criminal street crime.”

Bethea was on his way home from a trip to the store on Aug. 6, 2007, when he was struck in the chest by a bullet fired from a large-caliber handgun. He died about 100 feet from his front door.

During earlier court proceedings, Cooke said Thomas was a Franklin gang leader, and that on the night of the shooting Thomas had argued and fought with two other men. Although Bethea was described as an unintended target, Cooke said Thomas allegedly said in jail that Bethea “was a casualty of war” and “should not have been in the way.”

According to Cooke, during Tuesday’s sentencing Parker focused on “obviously untrue” statements Thomas made to a probation officer denying that he was a member of a gang. The judge also took into consideration Thomas’ use of a firearm to further gang activity.

“The Franklin Police Department, in particular Corporal Frank Justus, did an excellent job in this investigation, which involved hundreds of hours of work,” Cooke said. “I hope that these sentences bring some measure of closure for the family of the victim.”