Teen pleads guilty, gets 30 years for killing community activist

As crime closed in around Barney Simms' southwest Atlanta home, the longtime community activist dug in, even after he was the victim of a robbery in July 2015.

Less than a year later, his lifeless body would be found behind a towering hedgerow he had planted some 20 years earlier. A troubled teen allegedly shot and killed Simms, stealing the 70-year-old former housing executive's car, wallet and television.

On Monday, with his trial scheduled to begin, that suspect, 18-year-old Eric Banks, pleaded guilty to Simms’ murder. As part of his plea deal Banks received a 30-year prison sentence, avoiding a possible punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Banks had claimed Simms made a pass at him and said they first met two days before the April 2016 shooting. He said he felt threatened and killed Simms in self-defense, though prosecutors noted Banks shot him in the back — twice. Police also said they didn't believe the suspect's account.

Banks remained at large for nearly a week before turning himself in to police at his mother's behest. She had spotted him in surveillance footage from the Virginia Avenue Waffle House, where the teen had met Simms an hour before the murder. Banks had ditched Simms' car but later admitted to police he had stolen it.

Simms was a stalwart volunteer, serving as president of his homeowners association, board chair of Atlanta Victim Assistance and a slew of other organizations.

He was known as a jazz lover who stood out because of his trademark walrus mustache and sartorial flair.

“He gave his life for this community, ” state Rep. Douglas Dean said at a candlelight vigil following Simms’ death. “When this is all over, we must make our neighborhoods safe. He didn’t move out. He fought to make this community right, making the black, African-American community better. He didn’t run to a better neighborhood. He wanted to be right here.”