THE SLOW GRIND
The process of a trial is precise, methodical... and time consuming
Once the state and the defendant both announce that we are ready for trial, we attempt to try the case as soon as possible.
— Layla Zon District Attorney
A down economy may affect many things, but not the pace of court proceedings, especially in homicide cases.
That’s evident in Newton County, where eight murder cases are ongoing, including two death penalty cases. In all, there are 15 defendants who are charged with murder and are awaiting dispensation of their cases.
One of the cases dates from 2008. Most date from 2009.
So why does it take so long? Why does the system wait so many years to seek justice for victims of homicides? According to Clerk of Courts Linda Hays, the old adage “the wheels of justice grind slowly” isn’t a saying for no reason.
“Depending on the complexity of the case, the longer it could take,” she said. “When a case goes to trial, there is little chance of reaching a conclusion quickly. If the murder case is a death penalty case then that takes even longer.
“Once someone is charged with a crime automatically you would think the case would come to court to be tried soon; however, that just starts the process. A lot of work has to be done before a case is ready to be tried… Given the tremendous
amount of cases which are being set for trial as well as the judge’s schedules, a trial date cannot be set immediately… Besides the murder cases to be tried, there are numerous other cases to be tried before a judge and a jury.”
Once the investigative part of the case is finished by law enforcement, it is turned over to the district attorney’s office. The defendants have a right to an attorney, which has to be either hired by them or appointed from the public defenders office. For cases where there is more than one co-defendant, different attorneys (called conflict attorneys) have to be located before a case can even begin.
There are five judges in the Alcovy circuit, which includes Walton County. In Newton there is court three (sometimes five) days a week and the five judges have to hear civil and criminal cases between them. Newest judge Ken Wynne cannot be involved with any case that came into the district attorney’s office while he was the DA, so those cases must be funneled to the other judges.
Then there is the discovery process, where evidence is shared between the prosecution and the defense. The evidence has to be looked over, witnesses have to be interviewed, if needed, and experts have to be contacted and scheduled to appear in court. For some defendants, mental evaluations have to be scheduled and performed. Sometimes a defendant will decide they want a different attorney, which means that a new attorney has to be brought up-tospeed in the case.
“We have four regular terms of court — January, April, July and October,” explained Hays. “But you can only try so many cases in one week… The length of time it takes to try a case determines how many cases are tried that week. Cases not ready or continued are placed on the next jury trial calendar and a special term is usually set almost every month.”
District Attorney Layla Zon reiterated Hays statements, saying that each case is different, but that murder cases always take longer to investigate.
“We await reports from scientific tests performed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, compliance with subpoenas for the production of evidence, and once those results come in, there may be follow-up investigation that is needed,” said Zon.
“Some cases involve witnesses that are out of state or, in one case that we currently have pending now, out of the country. An attorney appointed or hired to represent a defendant charged with murder is going to need adequate time to review all of the state's evidence and reports and may need to file motions that must be heard before trial. Once the state and the defendant both announce that we are ready for trial, we attempt to try the case as soon as possible.”
“The judges have set special trial terms for us to specially set murder cases so that we can resolve the issue of the defendant’s guilt and provide closure to the victim’s family. Our goal at the district attorney’s office is to try the case as soon as we can do so, realizing that a defendant is entitled to a fair trial and he or she must be adequately prepared to go forward to trial or the conviction will not be upheld after the trial. A defendant convicted of murder is facing a minimum of a life sentence and the Supreme Court is going to review each conviction to ensure that the defendant's rights were protected. Ideally, we make sure that we don't have to try the case a second time if we can help it."
ON THE DOCKET
There are eight murder cases under way in Newton County, with 15 defendants. Here is a look at the cases and defendants.
Abel Torres — Torres, 32, is accused of killing his roommate, 29-year-old Fernando Gonzalez in 2008 before fleeing.
Authorities arrested Torres, who is from California, on a Greyhound bus.
Torres had previously been found incompetent to stand trial by doctors at Georgia Regional Hospital. He faces charges of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
His case is tentatively set to be heard during the week of July 18 before Judge Horace Johnson Jr.
Rodney Renia Young — Young is accused of bludgeoning to death his ex-fiancée’s son, 28-yearold Gary Lamar Jones, in 2008.
According to prosecutors, the victim came home from church on March 30, 2008, and was attacked. He was bound to a chair, stabbed in the neck and bludgeoned with a hammer. Threats directed at his mother, Young’s ex-fiancée, were scrawled on the walls in blood.
Young has pleaded not guilty and Judge Samuel Ozburn hopes to hear the case in the fall.
In June, defense attorneys filed a notice that “the defense intends to raise the issue that the defendant or accused was insane, mentally ill or mentally retarded.”
Larry Grison — Two years after the shooting death of 34-year-old Calvin Kentrell Banks, one of the accused has yet to head to trial.
Grison, now 32, was found less than a mile from Banks’ home with a large amount of marijuana. Although not initially charged in the case, he later faced charges of murder and armed robbery, along with a co-defendant Ricky “Money Mont” Matthews, who was sentenced last summer.
Grison is expected to have a trial before the end of the year.
Candice Pope, Jordan Coleman and Brandon Hambrick — The charred remains of Alvin Hall were found in a burning car on New Year’s Eve 2009.
Less than a week later authorities began to unravel what they believed happened to the city of Atlanta employee. Pope, 27, Coleman, 19 and Hambrick, 18, are charged with luring Hall into a car, where he was duck-taped and placed in the trunk
before being driven to Newton County where he was shot and the car set on fire.
The motive, according to prosecutors, was robbery. They say that the group planned to steal Hall’s ATM card and drain his account, a scam Pope and Hambrick allegedly frequently ran in Atlanta.
Pope and Coleman announced ready for trial in June. Hambrick is expected to announce that he is ready for trial as well later this summer.
Roland Wilson — Wilson is charged in the beating death of William Okafor, after the 21-year-old succumbed to his injuries in August 2009.
Wilson is accused of going to Okafor’s home and luring him outside. The victim’s parents allegedly heard arguing on the side of the house and a relative of the victim reportedly told investigators that they witnessed Wilson strike Okafor in the head with a brick.
Investigators are still looking for the other three males who were allegedly at the home with Wilson.
Wilson, who is now 25, last had a status hearing before a judge in May of this year.
Sam Dawkins, Robert Lambert, Michael West and Chad Allen — The four men, along with a cast of several bit players, are accused of the torture and murder of 38-year-old Andrew Nichols whose body was found partially buried in Social Circle in late 2009.
Judge Samuel Ozburn has cleared his calendar at times to have all defen- dants and their attorneys in the courtroom at once. Each has pleaded not guilty in the case.
Lambert, Allen and West’s attorneys have filed motions to suppress statements made to authorities as well as DNA evidence taken from the defendant. Although the judge denied their request to suppress DNA, in Lambert’s case, the judge did allow statements to be suppressed.
Lambert’s attorney argued that he had requested an attorney which should have caused questioning to cease. The motion states that investigators “erroneously advised by the officer that he, the defendant, could not make a statement to the officer unless the defendant signed a waiver form.”
Although the motion was denied, West’s attorney filed a motion to suppress a statement, saying West was under the influence at the time.
The judge answered back, saying: “although the interview with the defendant shows the defendant did mumble during the interview, he appeared otherwise coherent, aware of his Miranda rights and otherwise cognizant of the fact that he was making statements to police.
There is no trial date set in this case, and motions are still being heard periodically by the judge on each defendant.
Ricky Lewis Smith — The 46-year-old is charged with shooting Tajuana Lashawn Stroud in 2009.
Smith allegedly shot Stroud, along with his brother Steven Cadet Smith (who did not die) at
a home on Ga. Highway 162. A motive has yet to be released.
His trial is expected to begin in front of senior Judge John Ott the week of Oct. 17.
Pablo Maldonado, Brittney Beasley and Christian Caldwell
— Timothy Clements was found murdered just before Father’s Day 2009, his body floating in Snapping Shoals Creek.
Shortly after Clements was found, Maldonado, 24; Beasley, 20; and Caldwell, 19 — along with 18y e a r-o l d Katria McClain (who has already taken a plea in the case) were arrested. Maldonado worked for Clements at his landscaping business and Beasley and Caldwell lived with him at his Kirkland Road home. McClain was reportedly in a relationship with the purported ringleader.
They reportedly stole his truck and fled to Alabama. According to McClain, who took a plea deal last year, the group planned the murder out the night before.
Motions are still being heard in the three’s cases. District Attorney Layla Zon has said that she will seek the death penalty against Maldonado, meaning his case could take even longer than the others to make its way through the system.
There is no trial date set for any of the defendants at this time.
The eight murder cases that are ongoing in Newton County have been moving slowly while evidence is compiled and cases are prepared. On average, a murder case in Newton County lasts at least two years.