18-year-old facing life in prison balks at guilty plea

LAWRENCEVILLE - Facing the prospect of imprisonment until at least the year 2149, Darrian Bryant got cold feet Wednesday in Gwinnett Superior Court.

After two full days of jury selection, Bryant's attorney informed a judge Wednesday morning his client wished to plead guilty to a list of charges that included rape - a jaw-dropping surprise to prosecutors.

An hour or so later, however, Bryant, 18, informed the judge himself he'd had a change of heart, and the trial proceeded, behind schedule.

Bryant's attorney, David Whitman, explained that he'd misadvised his client about sentencing guidelines. A rape conviction in Georgia carries a minimum of 25 years, and up to life, in prison.

Dawn Taylor, Assistant District Attorney, said she wouldn't have accepted any less than 140 years in prison for Bryant, should a plea agreement have been struck.

"Things have gotten, for lack of a better word, a little weird here today," Superior Court Judge Timothy Hamil told both parties. The judge said he'd "agonized" over the case, knowing a man selected to the jury was forfeiting a planned trip to watch President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration Tuesday. "We're causing a man to miss a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

The case, Hamil said, had shown indications that a plea deal was imminent.

Nevertheless, come 1:30 p.m., the case proceeded with opening statements.

Taylor told the jury evidence implicates Bryant in a crime spree that unnerved residents in two Stone Mountain neighborhoods, starting with a rash of burglaries in June 2006 and culminating with the rape of a 15-year-old girl March 28, 2007.

She said Bryant, then 17 and a Parkview High School student, waited in the victim's bedroom, donning a ski mask, for her to come home from school. When she arrived, Taylor said, he ambushed her, covering her head with a sack, binding her legs and arms and raping her on the floor of a den.

Bryant later pillaged the home, Taylor said, and slammed the girl's head through a lamp and beat her with a vase, telling her, "I'll be back ... don't tell anybody," she said.

Bryant and the victim, who shared a school bus route, both lived in the East Parke neighborhood at the time.

"Every single thing that you can take from a 15-year-old girl, he took it," Taylor said.

Bryant faces a list of violent charges, including single counts of rape, false imprisonment, three counts of aggravated assault and 11 counts of burglary.

Taylor said blood spatter lifted from Bryant's shoes matched the victim's. Police also found items such as iPods and cameras stolen from the burglarized homes in Bryant's home and school locker, she said.

Bryant is accused of two other daylight burglaries resulting in battery charges at East Parke, as well as a burglary on Cedarwood Drive in Lilburn, about six miles from his neighborhood.

Whitman said his client admits to the burglaries but denies involvement in the rape - a crime "monstrously and entirely" different than breaking into homes, he said.

"I don't believe you'll hear one (burglary) victim say they came home and some monster was there," Whitman told jurors.

The state's first witness, Gwinnett police crime scene investigator Tanesha Taylor, led jurors on a photographic tour of the alleged rape scene, pointing out a bloody trail of evidence throughout the two-story home and a kitchen window with its screen pulled off. She said techs lifted a fingerprint from a bedroom armoire, but she made no mention of whom it belonged to.

Testimony is expected to resume this morning when Taylor calls the alleged rape victim and her mother to the stand.