Richard Hyatt: Playing the system

November 26, 2013 

In the 29 years since Carlton Gary walked freely in the sunshine, the world has changed and so has he. Prison does that to a person, but even behind bars this career criminal has cleverly played the system and avoided a death sentence that once seemed inevitable.

Two times last week -- with yet another important hearing on next year's court calendar -- Gary was in the headlines once again.

In separate actions prosecutors questioned the validity of a DNA test conducted on the 1977 murder and rape of Martha Thurmond and then asked Muscogee Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan to step aside because a copy of a controversial book on the Stocking Strangler case was displayed in his office at the Government Center.

Long time local residents are well acquainted with Gary and the seven murders of older women that occurred in 1977 and 1978. He was taken into custody in 1984 when police swooped into a motel in Albany, Ga., and two years later he was convicted of three of the killings.

The evidence in the Thurmond attack was an important part of a motion Gary's attorneys filed asking for a new trial, but photographs accompanying the front-page articles last week are reminders of how difficult retrying the case would be.

A black and white newspaper photograph taken on the night in 1984 that he was introduced to the public in Columbus offers a hint at the aura that surrounded Gary -- even in shackles.

Several times I've written that he had the swagger of a rock star. He even flirted openly with an attractive Channel 9 reporter who was in the crowd.

Then there was a newer picture of Gary, provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections. He's 63 now and the bluster is gone. His eyes droop with sadness and the fullness of his face tells us the muscles have softened.

In fairness to him, most of us who showed up to see him for the first time in 1984 or sat in on his trial in 1986 have also aged. The judge who heard his case is retired and so are the two lead prosecutors. Several key witnesses are dead and so are members of Gary's family that supported him through the years.

Time and death will make it hard for both sides to reassemble a case and so will the controversies that have always been present when Gary's name is mentioned. Even on death row he is a lightning rod.

He was a juvenile when he got in trouble in Florida. As an adult, he committed crimes from Georgia to New York. Those experiences and several tours in state prisons taught him how to play the game.

And it is a game he continues to skillfully play.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at

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