Ronaj Henderson was asleep in the front seat of a white Chrysler on Oct. 27, 2018 following a night of heavy drug use. That’s when 27-year-old Janeal Jerome Thompson ended his life with a single shot to the head.
Slightly more than a year after the murder, Thompson learned his own fate Tuesday afternoon.
In August, after the lawyers had made their arguments in the case and the jury was deliberating, Thompson suddenly flipped the script and pleaded guilty on all counts, including first-degree murder.
Thompson’s trial before Circuit Court Judge Jay West began July 29 and lasted a full week, with deliberations spilling over into the following week before Thompson made his plea.
Thompson received a 65-year sentence for the first-degree murder charge, along with a combined 24 years of concurrent time for the weapons offenses associated with the case.
Thompson was also sentenced for a separate heroin possession case dating to Feb. 2018 and violating parole in two additional cases. In the possession case, Thompson received a year, and for the violations of probation he received a 12- and 1-year sentence. The single year will run concurrently with the 12 years, and the heroin case will run consecutively.
The three accessories to the murder — Sarah DeFilippo and Steven Tyler Danielson, both 26, and 50-year-old Eric Nolan Washington — were also sentenced on Tuesday.
Washington, who helped Thompson drag Henderson’s body deep into the woods in a secluded part of Nanjemoy, received a 3-year sentence for his role.
DeFilippo and Danielson both received no further active incarceration, and were placed on 5 years of supervised probation.
Henderson’s family addressed the court at the beginning of the proceedings, rather than making repeated statements for each individual.
Henderson’s grandfather, Walter Brookings, recalled that he had seen his grandson “on the first day of his life, and on his last.”
It was his wife’s birthday, he said, when they learned what happened to Ronaj.
“I don’t know how anyone could be shot in the head while sleeping,” Brookings said.
Henderson’s other grandfather, Harry Washington, said the young man’s death has been tormenting the entire family since it happened.
“Everybody’s going through it because of this,” Washington said. “Why can’t people just get along? ...Their whole life changed, and they took something else from our family.”
Henderson’s mother, Shirley Washington, addressed the court through a letter that Assistant State’s Attorney Donna Pettersen read rather than speaking out loud.
She called her son’s death “the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with,” describing how hard the days have been for her and their loved ones since his murder.
To DeFilippo, Shirley Washington wrote that she considers her responsible for the murder, even if she did not pull the trigger.
“This all happened because of you,” the letter read. “I hope you get as much time as [Thompson].”
Before Thompson’s sentencing Tuesday, which was the last of those called in this case, Pettersen reminded the court of the course of events that night. The incident that ended Henderson’s life had reportedly occurred the night before, she said, when he “made a pass” at DeFilippo, who was Thompson’s girlfriend at the time. She, in turn, told Thompson what Henderson did.
As DeFilippo drove the three men around the Bryans Road area the following morning, Pettersen said, Thompson shot Henderson in the ear “while yelling all the time ‘Don’t play with me.’”
A “very scared” DeFilippo and Danielson remained in the vehicle as they went to pick up Washington at Thompson’s behest, Pettersen said, and all four went together to Nanjemoy, although only Washington and Thompson removed and hid the body deep in the woods. Before leaving, Pettersen said, Thompson stole the gold tennis shoes off Henderson’s corpse.
At one point, Pettersen said, Danielson asked Thompson why he’d shot Henderson. The answer was direct and simple.
“He disrespected me,” Thompson reportedly replied to Danielson.
Henderson’s body went undiscovered for days, Pettersen said. In the time before DeFilippo and Thompson were arrested together after being found in Arlington, Va., Pettersen said the gunman took great care to try and cover his tracks. In the time before the murder arrest, Thompson was even arrested and held briefly in Prince George’s County after being found asleep at a gas station with a gun on his lap. Still, neither he nor any of the other people reported what happened.
“He has to be held accountable for his actions,” Pettersen said. “The state believes he is a danger...who should not be let back out in the community.”
Thompson’s attorney, William Porter, pointed out that all the people in the car that day were there willingly, all of whom were “binging on drugs” and had been for days leading up to the shooting.
He posited that it was relatively fortunate the victim had not been an innocent bystander.
Judge West questioned whether it was actually worse that the decedent was a friend of the defendant because of the level of trust they had. Isn’t it worse, he asked, that Thompson had “put a gun in the ear of someone who trusted you just two minutes ago?”
For “normal people in normal circumstances,” Porter responded, it would be. However, he said, because of the heavy drug use everyone in the car “was basically out of their minds that night. None of these people were thinking straight. ...It’s not a normal situation I can begin to understand, and I don’t think the court can understand either.”
Judge West, however, disagreed that the drugs were solely responsible. In his years on the bench and practicing law, West said he’s known the court to see drug-related cases on a virtually daily basis. However, until this trial, West said, he’d never in his years seen a case where someone was shot to death in their sleep.
“The vast majority of people fighting addiction never execute someone’s grandson,” West said. “I don’t think if you were a soldier in combat...if you found the enemy sleeping, I don’t think you could shoot them. And this isn’t a war-time scenario. These were friends.”
“This goes beyond murder,” West added. “It’s an execution.”