Jury deliberations were already well underway in Janeal Jerome Thompson’s trial for first-degree murder when he pleaded guilty to all counts Monday morning in Charles County Circuit Court before Judge Hayward James “Jay” West.
Thompson, 27, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and related weapons offenses for the October 2018 murder of his friend, 22-year-old Ronaj Henderson. Henderson and Thompson, along with Thompson’s former girlfriend Sarah DeFilippo and friend Steven Tyler Danielson, both 26, had been doing copious amounts of drugs together the night before Thompson shot the slumbering Henderson in the head.
The murder stemmed from an argument Thompson and Henderson had the previous night over Thompson’s treatment of his girlfriend. In her testimony in the courtroom, DeFilippo said at one point the night before Henderson was killed, he’d confronted Thompson after he had “”smushed” the woman’s face during the course of an argument. Henderson had privately told her she deserved better than Thompson, DeFilippo said, and had stroked her head at one point that night.
She told Thompson what had happened. He later shot Henderson in the ear as the foursome were in the car the next morning. With the aid of another man they picked up en route, 50-year-old Eric Nolan Washington, Thompson hid Henderson’s body deep in the Nanjemoy woods. His body was recovered a week later, after information from DeFilippo led police there.
Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) said in a Monday afternoon phone call that it’s “unusual but not unheard of” for defendants to plead to a crime after deliberations have already begun in a trial. In Thompson’s trial, the jury heard closing arguments on Thursday afternoon and the deliberation process began at 12:30 p.m. Friday, online court records show. Covington said the jury stayed in the courthouse until around 9 p.m. before they left for the night.
Before the trial began, Covington said, the state had offered the defense a plea agreement, as they do in “just about every single case.” Under their offer, Covington said, Thompson would have pleaded guilty in exchange for a maximum sentence of 65 years. Thompson’s defense attorney William Porter instead asked for 60 years.
“I wasn’t agreeing to that,” Covington said of the defense’s counter offer.
As part of the plea agreement entered Monday, Thompson will face up to 65 years when he appears in court for sentencing Sept. 29. First-degree murder carries a maximum life sentence in Maryland.
A possible desire for “certainty” may have motivated Thompson’s decision to plead guilty, Covington said, as the jury hadn’t quickly arrived at a verdict, creating apprehension.
“Quite frankly, there was a whole lot of evidence against [Thompson],” Covington said. “There were two other people in the car when the shooting occurred.”
In a February jailhouse letter addressed to a woman who shares the same address as the one listed in online court records for DeFilippo, Thompson appears to confess.
“I really am sorry for what happened, you know I wasn’t myself,” Thompson wrote. “I wasn’t there in the head, gone out of my mind and you even said it yourself. Drugs ruined my life and I be feeling so sad about that sometimes that it took something like this for me to hate that [expletive].”