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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Should a defendant charged with second-degree murder get a plea deal that carries three to six years in prison?

Heather Brown says the answer is no. The defendant in question, Harley Berry, is her son’s accused killer.

In May 2020, her son Elijah McQueary joined Berry and other friends on a trip to Memphis from their hometown in Kentucky. Memphis Police said Berry and McQueary got in an argument that led to Berry stabbing and killing her friend. Authorities charged Berry with second-degree murder.

“She called me after she murdered my child. She stabbed him in the left jugular and left lung. He had defensive wounds on his left arm,” Brown said. “I got to call my son before he died. As he’s gurgling his blood on the ground trying to say ‘mama,’ that’s when my son was dead.”

Brown hoped her road to justice was close to the end; the suspect’s trial was scheduled to start February 27 and she felt ready.

But last Thursday she got some surprising news.

“Three days ago we were going to trial. I called on Thursday. That’s when I was told they made the plea agreement and were dropping charges from second-degree to involuntary manslaughter,” Brown said. “They’re pleading her down to involuntary manslaughter which carries a time of three to six years.”

The family of Elijah McQueary holds up his picture while speaking outside the courtroom in Memphis.

She said she had no involvement with the plea deal arrangement, which comes with a minimum three-year sentence. With credit for time served, Berry would be eligible for release in the coming months.

Brown doesn’t think it’s a long enough sentence.

She found WREG has covered plea deals in the past and called the WREG investigators.

In September, we asked newly-elected District Attorney Steve Mulroy if he would move forward with a plea deal despite the wishes of a victim’s family.

“You can’t give any one actor an absolute veto,” he said. “We’re going to take into account what the victims and victim’s family wants and give it great weight. But at the end of the day, the decision has to be first in the prosecutions’ hands.”

Brown and her family traveled from Kentucky to show up in force in court Monday morning with the hope of blocking a potential plea deal. Berry spoke with her lawyer as both sides waited hours for their time in front of the judge.

During the waiting period, Brown said she and her relatives met with prosecutors to learn more about the potential plea deal.

When court reconvened, Judge Paula Skahan expressed concern about the prosecutors’ actions.

“I have also been advised that Assistant DA Gerald Skahan, my brother, has been part of the negotiations,” she said.

Gerald Skahan is a former judge who Mulroy hired in October as a special assistant. The victim’s family says they met Gerald Skahan for the first time on Monday.

A spokesperson for the DA tells WREG the fight before McQueary’s death complicates the case: “We don’t believe in good faith that we can prove the elements of second-degree murder.”

The DA also said, “Gerald Skahan was involved as part of his regular duties” and “broke no ethical rules.”

But Gerald’s sister, Judge Paula Skahan, told the court her brother’s involvement gives an “appearance of impropriety.”

“When I found out this morning how closely he has been working on this case, I feel extremely uncomfortable accepting a guilty plea in this courtroom,” she said.

The victim’s family said WREG’s cameras in the courtroom helped bring light to the issue.

“I think honestly having you here,” Brown said.

Judge Skahan asked the clerk to re-assign the case.

“Hopefully a new judge can get in here and look at the case and keep it at second-degree murder and we can change all this around,” Brown said.

Moving forward, Mulroy said his office “will try to involve other personnel” instead of Gerald Skahan in cases that happen in Judge Paula Skahan’s courtroom.

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