ATLANTA (AP) — Three U.S. servicemen who have been in prison for 25 years for a racially-motivated murder are entitled to a new trial because prosecutors improperly withheld evidence that would have helped the men's defense, Georgia's highest court ruled Thursday.
Stanley Jackson, a black man, was fatally shot around 10 p.m. on Jan. 31, 1992, while standing on a corner in a high-crime part of Savannah. Three white servicemen stationed at nearby Fort Stewart — Mark Jason Jones, Kenneth Eric Gardiner and Dominic Brian Lucci — were arrested less than an hour later and charged with murder.
State prosecutors failed to disclose a police report that described a similar racially-motivated incident later that night after they were in custody, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines wrote in a unanimous opinion.
State attorney general's office spokeswoman Katelyn McCreary said in an email that the office is reviewing the opinion and had no further comment.
Peter Camiel, an attorney for the three men said Thursday he's thrilled. If prosecutors decide to pursue a new trial, Camiel said his team will be ready to defend them.
"But that would be a terrible decision," he said by phone. "These guys have been in custody for so long. It's time to send them home."
The three were convicted in November 1992 of malice murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and sentenced to serve life in prison plus five years. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld their convictions in June 1994.
While discussing weekend plans earlier on the day of the shooting, Jones had told a female service member that he was going to Savannah that night because "he had somebody that he was going to shoot," she testified at trial. When she asked who, she said he replied, "I got a black guy up there I got to get."
An eyewitness, James White, testified that he heard rapid gunfire and saw a black 1992 Chevrolet Cavalier come to a screeching halt. He said he saw two white men, whom he identified at trial as Gardiner and Jones, lean out the windows firing guns before the car sped away.
Jackson was found in the intersection, dead of multiple gunshot wounds from a high-powered gun.
After police records were released in response to a 2010 open records request, the three men challenged their conviction on constitutional grounds.
They claimed the state had failed to disclose that White told officers before trial that he couldn't identify the shooters and that White had been coerced into testifying at trial that he could identify them. They also said prosecutors had failed to give them a police report describing an incident about three hours after the men were arrested in which a witness said white men with military style haircuts and semi-automatic weapons drove through a public housing project threatening "to shoot blacks who hung out on street corners."
A lower court declined to reverse their convictions, and they appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Thursday's high court opinion says the police report "clearly would have been helpful to the defense; it was evidence that others similar in appearance were threatening a racial attack similar to that alleged to have been suffered by Jackson, but three hours after his slaying, when the defendants were already in custody."
Having that report would have allowed the men's trial attorneys to bolster their attack on the thoroughness of the investigation and to present an alternative theory for the killing, the opinion says.
Additionally, Hines notes that Jackson was killed shortly after 10 p.m., but there was trial testimony that the three men were at a rehearsal for Jones' wedding, which was to happen the next day, until 9:15 or 9:30 p.m. at a location 50 minutes away by car. No murder weapon was ever found. No gun, casings or gunshot residue were found in the men's car.
The trial also had significant racial overtones and "had the jury been presented with information that other persons, not the defendants, were in the area that same night, apparently ready to engage in racially motivated violence, the outcome of the trial might well have been different," the opinion says.