Closure in East Atlanta killing

Teenager pleads guilty to the 2003 shooting

For killing a 32-year-old wine supplier who was walking from an East Atlanta restaurant to his car, 17-year old LaVan "Van" Hickman will spend a mandatory two decades in prison.

Hickman, who was 15 at the time of the March 2003 shooting, pleaded guilty Dec. 9 to voluntary manslaughter, armed robbery and aggravated assault in the death of Christian Henderson. The teenager originally had been charged with murder, but that count was reduced as part of the plea. Under state law, juveniles between the ages of 13 and 16 who commit one of "seven deadly sins" — including armed robbery — must go to adult prison and serve 100 percent of their sentences.

"It's more than his whole life so far," DeKalb County public defender Juwayn Haddad says of the sentence. "It's a difficult thing for a client to take."

He also says that the intense emotions surrounding the case — Henderson was leaving the restaurant after dining there with his 25-year-old fiancee, Emily Stanley — would have raised challenges at trial.

"The jury is first of all going to feel sympathy for the deceased, and obviously for Emily," Haddad says. "I mean, she saw her fiancee get gunned down."

It was shortly after 10 p.m. that Stanley and Henderson left the upscale and popular Iris restaurant and walked a block up Haas Street toward Henderson's SUV.

In a police report, during court hearings and via e-mail with CL, Stanley recalled that two men approached them; one had a gun. They demanded Henderson's wallet. Stanley said Henderson backed away, saying, "No, no, no." He was not refusing his wallet, she says; he was begging for his life. Before Henderson had a chance to pull his wallet, one of the men shot him once in the abdomen, then snatched Stanley's purse and ran.

A second suspect has not been charged.

"My entire life was stolen from me that night," Stanley wrote to CL. "Christian died for nothing. He wasn't the kind of person to argue or fight with an armed criminal. He was terrified."

The couple was able to stumble back to the restaurant and call 911 — an experience that proved excruciating and raised issues about slow 911 response times in parts of Atlanta outside Fulton County. Most of East Atlanta is in DeKalb County, and because of a mix-up that sent the call from an Atlanta dispatcher to a Fulton County one to a DeKalb one, it ultimately took 18 minutes for an ambulance to arrive on the scene. The preferred response time for a shooting, according to emergency response experts, is eight minutes.

Twelve days after the shooting, Henderson died at Grady Memorial Hospital of complications from the gunshot wound.

Two months passed before Hickman was arrested. Though the teenager lived one street over from where the shooting occurred, he was picked up at Georgia Regional Hospital Atlanta after his mother, Claudine Jackson, took him there for help with psychological problems, she told CL last year. At the time, Jackson produced medical documents showing her son had been prescribed the mood-leveling drug Seroquel, which is commonly used to control schizophrenia. But Hickman hadn't been taking his medicine lately, she claimed.

"Georgia Regional had nothing to do with breaking the case open," prosecutor Schwarz says. "It just so happens that's where he was."

But according to Hickman's attorney, Haddad, the young man had been medicated since he was 10, and the fact that he was in a mental institute at the time of his arrest was "clue No. 1 that there might be some issues."

Haddad tried in October to convince the court that Hickman's mental problems deemed him incapable of standing trial. At a hearing, Haddad called to the stand a doctor who testified that Hickman was "presently not competent to stand trial, because he could not assist me in the defense of the case," Haddad says.

But the prosecution contested the testimony and produced a doctor who testified that Hickman was able to stand trial.

DeKalb Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger ruled in the prosecution's favor.

Hickman's trial was expected to take place in January. After a Dec. 6 pre-trial hearing, the young defendant expressed no interest in pleading guilty.

"But the next day, I got a call from his mother," Haddad recalls. "She said, 'Well, he changed his mind.'"