Killer of gay Atlanta civic activist gets 35 years in prison

The man accused of killing gay civic activist Barney Simms by gunning him down in Simms' front yard pleaded guilty on Monday and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The 18-year-old killer, Eric Banks, Jr., pleaded guilty as his trial was about to open in a Fulton County courtroom. Banks shot Simms twice in the back outside his Southwest Atlanta home on April 9, 2016.

Police said robbery was the motive behind the killing as Banks took Simms' television, wallet and 2016 Lexus before fleeing. Banks said he shot Simms, 70, to defend himself from Simms' sexual advances.

On Monday, Fulton Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams sentenced Banks to 35 years in prison without the possibility of parole. Banks pleaded guilty to malice murder, three counts of felony murder, hijacking a motor vehicle, armed robbery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“Barney Simms was a well-respected leader and community activist," Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard said in a prepared statement. "Mr. Simms’ death was a senseless killing leaving a large hole in our community. It is our hope that this plea to murder will bring a sense of closure to the family and to the citizens of our county."

A grand jury indicted Banks on charges of murder, felony murder, armed robbery and other charges related to the murder in July 2016.

Banks met Simms two days before the shooting and the pair exchanged phone numbers. On April 9, Banks called Simms to pick him up. The pair ate at a nearby Waffle House about 2 p.m. before returning to Simms' home. Less than an hour later, Banks gunned down Simms. Neighbors found the body in hedges in Simms' neatly manicured yard.

When the men arrived at Simms' home, the two men sat on a bench in the front yard. That's when Simms touched Banks' arm and groin, and invited him inside, according to testimony from Atlanta police during a hearing in May 2016. Banks brandished a weapon and shot Simms in the back, police said.

Four days after the killing, Atlanta police released video surveillance of the two men at Waffle House and asked for the public's help in identifying the man that turned out to be Banks. His family identified Banks to police and a fugitive squad arrested him where he lived with the family in an apartment about two miles from Simms' home.

Court documents said Banks was a student at Washington High School in southwest Atlanta and admitted to recent drug use when he was arrested on April 14.

Simms was a former executive with the Atlanta Housing Authority and served on several city-related boards and commissions as well as neighborhood and civic groups.