One of two young men charged in the murders of former ORU freshman Carissa Horton and her boyfriend, Ethan Nichols, faces life without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty last week in exchange for avoiding trial and a possible death penalty.
Jerard Davis, 23, was awaiting trial along with Darren Price, 21, for two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of robbery with a firearm in the September 2011 deaths of Iowa-natives Horton, 18, and Nichols, 21. The couple had gone for a walk in an east Tulsa city park on a Sunday evening.
Davis changed his “not guilty” plea to “guilty” last week and appeared before Tulsa County District Judge Bill Musseman and a full courtroom on Oct. 29 for sentencing.
District Attorney Tim Harris announced his intent to seek the death penalty in the murder case during the 2012 arraignment hearings, but Davis’ plea agreement will keep him off death row.
Musseman announced the two robbery charges against Davis have been dropped as part of the plea deal. He also explained that by pleading guilty, Davis has waved all his trial rights.
Davis and Price were to be tried separately, with Davis’ trial scheduled to begin Monday.
On the night of Sept. 18, 2011, Horton and Nichols were walking along a jogging trail in Hicks Park, at the 3400 block of South Mingo Road, when two males confronted and robbed them.
The couple were then forced to their knees and shot in their heads execution style, according to police reports. Their bodies were not found until the next morning by joggers.
Both Price and Davis admit to being in Hicks Park the night of the double-homicide but neither takes blame for the killings, according to court documents.
In his factual basis statement during his guilty pleas, Davis claimed involvement in the robbery but said it was Price who pulled the trigger.
Harris remains unconvinced.
“This is a felony murder because we don’t know who pulled the trigger,” Harris said in an interview after the sentencing. “He’s saying Darren Price pulled it, but we don’t necessarily agree with that.”
Lasting just more than half an hour, the plea deal was scheduled at 4 p.m. to accommodate the travel of the families, some of whom drove from Iowa to attend.
Both Horton and Nichols moved to Tulsa from the small town of Keokuk, Iowa. When the freshman began her music studies at ORU, the two started dating.
During the plea deal, Horton’s and Nichols’ parents gave victim impact statements detailing how the murders have affected their families.
Susan Gardner, Horton’s mother, spoke of her daughter’s relationship with Nichols, who worked at the Blue Bell Creamery in Broken Arrow.
“She also loved her boyfriend, Ethan. They had big plans after her graduation of getting married and going to Europe on a honeymoon,” Gardner said.
Wearing a pin clipped on her shirt with the young woman’s small picture in it, Gardner talked about her daughter’s passion for music and dedication to service. She volunteered in the Big Brother, Big Sister program.
Her mother is thankful for the CD she has of Horton singing.
“[She was] a one-of-a-kind, special, unique young lady who loved God and loved people,” Gardner said. “She did everything with a smile.”
During his statement, Horton’s father, Rod Horton, spoke of the pain his daughter’s death has prompted.
“Most every time I drive by a jogging trail, it brings back the memory of what happened to my daughter, and the tears start to flow,” Horton said.
Teresa Nichols can’t rid herself of the nightmares.
“My mind tries to go back to the murder scene those last moments before their lives were taken, and I wake up with my heart beating quickly and sobbing,” Nichols said.
Nichols described her son, Ethan Nichols, as “a little quiet at times,” but would offer help or comfort to those who needed either.
She said friends called him kind-hearted and giving, with a goofy sense of humor.
“With these trials come that reminder of the loss and the pain again,” Nichols said.
Davis’ defense attorney, David Phillips, expressed his sympathy for the family before the Oct. 29 sentencing began.
In an interview after the plea deal, Phillips emphasized these same sentiments.
“My client genuinely feels remorse,” Phillips said. “He realizes now there are a lot of things he could have done that night.”
Phillips named calling the police and helping in the capture of Price as examples of what Davis could have done.
Prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty for Price, who is set to appear in his trial by jury on Jan. 27.