Elections, trials, road work mark 2014 calendar

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 31, 2013 

Among the news sure to make headlines in 2014: Elections.

Among the first election news to make headlines in 2014: The dates we hold elections.

Right now they're up in the air, as state legislators are almost certain to change the election schedule currently set after the Georgia General Assembly convenes Jan. 13.

What's spurring this is a lawsuit that alleged Georgia's schedule for federal elections violated the Uniform Overseas Voting Act, which says those voting absentee from foreign lands must have 45 days or an acceptable alternative to cast their ballots. Georgia had scheduled only 21 days between an election and any runoff that followed.

Georgia had its party primary elections set for July 15, with any subsequent runoff on Aug. 5.

After losing the lawsuit, state leaders asked the judge to order federal primary elections reset for May 20, with any runoff on July 22. The judge agreed.

That changed the federal elections governed by the overseas voting act, but not state and local elections, leaving Georgians facing the possibility of six separate election days in one year, counting the November general election and any runoff resulting from that.

They would go to the polls for federal primaries May 20 and go back for any runoff July 22, but a week before that runoff, they'd go back July 15 to vote in state and local elections, and any runoff resulting from those would on Aug. 5 follow any federal runoff on July 22.

Voter fatigue and confusion likely would ensue, so legislators early in the session may pass legislation to make state and local elections conform to the federal schedule.

In Columbus, that would mean nonpartisan races for mayor, council and school board would be May 20, the same day residents vote for governor, state legislators, U.S. senator and Congressmen.

Voters may recall that Columbus' last mayoral election was held with the general election in November. The General Assembly changed that in 2011 to make local elections coincide with state party primaries, so in 2012 all were held on July 31.

If the legislature alters the dates to make local and state elections match federal primaries, that also will change the schedule for qualifying: Local candidates would qualify between 9 a.m. March 3 and noon March 7.

Besides the mayor's office, others open to challenge this year include the odd-numbered Columbus Council posts and the even-numbered school board districts, along with the citywide board seat being vacated by Cathy Williams, who will not seek re-election.

Projects

Among the first city projects expected to conclude this year is the Sixth Avenue sewer upgrade that for so long has detoured motorists as it moved north from Victory Drive toward 14th Street. That's likely to end in January or early February.

Folks who regularly use the Chattahoochee RiverWalk soon will find they no longer have to circumvent the Frank Martin Bridge at 14th Street, where crews are expected to complete a passage under the bridge to connect the riverwalk's southern stretch with the section running from the bridge north.

Also at 14th Street, the city will make streetscape improvements from Broadway west to a cul de sac at the pedestrian bridge's eastern end, a design expected to complement the renovated bridge.

Next in line along the riverfront will be riverwalk construction to connect gaps at City Mills and at the North Highlands Dam in Bibb City.

Area motorists might want to get used to using circular intersections called roundabouts, as more are coming -- at Schatulga Road and Corporate Ridge Drive, at St. Marys Road and Northstar Drive, and on South Lumpkin Road at the entrance to the Columbus Water Works sewage treatment plant.

South of that Lumpkin Road roundabout, the road will be landscaped and widened to create a smoother, more attractive route down to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center and Columbus State University's Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center.

On the north side of town, motorists can expect some road construction to relieve congestion at Veterans Parkway and Double Churches Road, including an extra left-turn lane for those turning off Veterans onto Double Churches.

The work also aims alleviate another bottleneck just south of that intersection, where traffic sometimes jams at the J.R. Allen Parkway exit, said Deputy City Manager David Arrington: "Included in that are ramp improvements coming off J.R. Allen to Veterans Parkway."

To the east, the city hopes to get bids for improving Forrest Road from Woodruff and Floyd Roads to Schatulga Road, Arrington said: "We're close to getting right-of-way cleared on it. It will probably take a couple of more months, so we hope to get that one bid out and be under construction."

Also this year the Veterans Parkway streetscapes project from Victory Drive north to Eighth Street should be finished.

Going to court

Thirty-six years have passed since a murderous nightstalker terrorized Columbus' midtown area, meticulously dismantling locks and doors, creeping silently into elderly women's homes, raping and strangling them.

The seven serial killings called the "Stocking Stranglings" began in September 1977 and ended in April 1978. In 1984, police arrested Carlton Gary. In 1986, he was convicted in three of the seven slayings. In 2009, hours before he was to die of lethal injection, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a stay, ordering a Muscogee Superior Court judge to hold a hearing on DNA testing.

Conflicting test results bolstered defense attorneys' efforts to gain Gary a new trial, and that's to be the subject of yet another court hearing set for 10 a.m. Feb. 10.

It follows revelations a DNA test appearing to clear Gary in one of the heinous homicides was tainted in a Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab.

According to Nov. 21 prosecution court filings, the GBI in a report dated Nov. 14 found the male DNA profile attributed to evidence tested from Martha Thurmond's Oct. 25, 1977, rape and strangling "is actually the result of contamination from a quality-control sample."

The agency confirmed the error, having "conclusively matched the errant DNA profile to a quality control sample maintained by the laboratory," according to a motion filed by District Attorney Julia Slater and Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly.

Prosecutors now maintain the only valid DNA test came from the Sept. 24, 1977, rape and strangling of Jean Dimenstein: "The semen found in the vaginal washings from victim Mrs. Jean Dimenstein positively matched ... which proves that Gary is guilty of the rape and murder of Mrs. Dimenstein."

Authorities said the problem with the Thurmond test came to light when DNA results in an unrelated case were contaminated by a control sample -- a known DNA sample technicians use to test their equipment.

The discovery prompted the agency to require that all control samples be included in Georgia's DNA database, in case they matched evidence in other cases. That revealed the mysterious DNA profile from the Thurmond test was the control sample the GBI laboratory had been using.

Gary was convicted of Thurmond's murder, but not Dimenstein's. Though then-District Attorney Bill Smith maintained a single killer committed all seven stranglings, he chose to narrow Gary's prosecution to just three of the cases.

Besides Thurmond, Gary was convicted in the murders of Florence Scheible, 89, of 1941 Dimon St., whose body was found Oct. 21, 1977, and Kathleen Woodruff, 74, of 1811 Buena Vista Road, found dead Dec. 28, 1977.

Besides Dimenstein, the stranglings for which Gary was not convicted were Ferne Jackson, 60, of 2505 17th St., on Sept. 15, 1977; Mildred Borom, 78, of 1612 Forest Ave., on Feb. 12, 1978; and Janet Cofer, 61, of 3783 Steam Mill Road, on April 20, 1978.

One week after Gary's hearing before Judge Frank Jordan Jr., two men charged in Columbus' first homicide of 2013 are set for trial.

Charged with murder in the Jan. 1 fatal shooting of 24-year-old Charles Foster Jr., Dequandrea Artavas Truitt and Shaquille Porter are to face a judge Feb. 17.

Foster was hit in the chest when gunfire erupted around 2:30 that morning at the Majestic Lounge, 2102 Cusseta Road, where five other people were wounded. Foster died later at the hospital.

His death made national news when it was featured in a National Public Radio report on gun violence.

The shooting also sparked community outrage and prompted city leaders to investigate reports of other criminal activity at the nightclub.

Authorities found that patrons too young to drink legally had been admitted to the business and that the owner and an employee did not have mandatory alcohol beverage control cards.

The violations resulted in the city's revoking the nightspot's license.

Their indictment charges Truitt and Porter with malice murder, meaning they killed Foster "with malice aforethought," and with felony murder for causing his death while committing a felony, in this case aggravated assault.

Also the two were indicted on six counts of aggravated assault for shooting Foster and five others, and with two counts of using a firearm to commit a crime.

In March, the brother-in-law who killed his estranged wife's sister with a shotgun during a 2011 custody dispute over his son goes to trial.

Lonnie Ragan is charged with murder in the death of 28-year-old Holly Hearn, who was shot in the chest Aug. 26, 2011, outside her 5912 Billings Court home in Columbus.

Ragan's wife sometimes stayed with her. During the dispute, Ragan pointed a shotgun in her husband's face, and Hearn brought out a .38-caliber revolver, officers said. Ragan shot her in the chest at close range, they said.

Ragan also shot and wounded her husband Ryan Hearn, who tried to get behind a vehicle, police said. He was hit in the upper thigh before Ragan's shotgun jammed, they said.

Ragan fled in his truck, but later surrendered to police. Besides murder, he's charged with aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, police said.

In Dayton, Ohio, Ragan pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2004.

He was sentenced to four years in prison for fatally stabbing a man during a street brawl over a keg of beer, court documents and local news reports said.

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