With plea, man avoids prison in death of ex-DeKalb football standout

Savannah State student from Lithonia was shot and killed in 2015
Christopher Jamal Starks

Christopher Jamal Starks

He was previously charged with felony murder. But on Tuesday, the man who killed a former DeKalb County football standout at Savannah State University pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, according to Chatham County court records.

Justin Devon Stephens was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years, including just three in prison. But he’ll be credited with the time he’s already served since his arrest in April 2018, meaning his sentence will be probation only.

The plea deal closed the criminal case against Stephens. But the family of Christopher Jamal Starks, shot and killed Aug. 27, 2015, says it’s not a harsh enough sentence.

“We are incredibly disappointed by today’s announcement of a plea deal for the killer of our son,” Ray and Sharron Starks said in an emailed statement. “It is outrageous that this man could walk onto a college campus and into the student union, shoot our son in cold blood, and then be released with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.”

Christopher Starks, 22, was in the student center on campus when he was shot during a fight, according to police. He died at a hospital.

The shooting prompted an outcry about safety on college campuses, with students and parents voicing concerns on social media. With a new year school year just underway, Savannah State leaders vowed to increase security on campus to keep students and staff safe. The day after the shooting, those coming on campus were required to show identification.

Nearly three years later in April 2018, the GBI announced an arrest in the case. Stephens, then 23, was arrested on charges including felony murder, aggravated assault and firearm offenses after being indicted in the case. Stephens was not a Savannah State student.

Justin Devon Stephens

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In July 2019, Stephens’ murder trial ended with a deadlocked jury. Defense attorneys had argued that it was not Stephens who fired the fatal shot during a fight in a crowded area. A second trial was planned before he agreed to a plea deal.

“We were emotionally and physically prepared to attend another trial and are shocked at this outcome,” the Starks family said.

The Chatham District Attorney’s Office did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Starks graduated in 2012 from Miller Grove High School in Lithonia, where he played football and competed in track and field. As a senior, he had 26 receptions for 453 yards as a wide receiver and recorded 16 tackles on defense. He signed a scholarship to play football at Appalachian State University but later transferred to Savannah State.

An aspiring rapper, Starks performed under the stage name “Booley Boo” and had recorded a song in an Atlanta studio before his death.

That love of music was due in part to growing up attending Berean Christian Church in Stone Mountain, Ray Starks said days after his son’s death. Christopher Starks loved to dance and sang in the high school choir.

“He was just a happy kid,” Ray Starks told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He didn’t have an enemy in the world, and that’s hard to do these days.”

The Starks family has also filed a civil suit in their son’s death. That case is pending.