Convicted 'Stocking Strangler' back in court

Defense team trying to get new trial based on evidence that does not match Gary

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 23, 2014 

The terror that gripped Columbus 36 years ago is hard to imagine today, if you don't remember it.

A night stalker, silent and invisible as a phantom slipped into the homes of older women living alone, beat, raped and strangled them, then left the bodies ritually covered by bedclothes.

Seven serial killings spanned from September 1977 to April 1978, years preceding cellphones, Internet and digital photography. Security measures by today's standards were crude: wired phone lines, audible alarms, burglar bars and deadbolt locks.

The killer was so patient and meticulous he quietly dismantled a deadbolt improperly installed. In the case of Jean Dimenstein, who lived just west of what today is Cross Country Plaza, he took a door off its hinges to get in. It seemed no home security measure available then could stop him.

Today, the man convicted in three of the ritual killings and blamed for them all, as well as similar crimes from his time in New York, returns to Columbus as his death penalty defense team argues he should get a new trial based on evidence that does not match him.

Prosecutors will argue such evidence is of dubious value and minimal compared to all the evidence against him.

Carlton Gary was in his 20s during the stranglings. Now, he's in his 60s. He has been on Georgia's death row since he was convicted in 1986, two years after police tracked him down through a fingerprint and a stolen gun.

He was hours from lethal injection in December 2009 when the Georgia Supreme Court ordered a court here to consider DNA testing any suitable evidence from the stranglings. Prosecutors and defense attorneys made a deal the next year on what to test.

The initial results conflicted, matching him to Dimenstein's murder but not Martha Thurmond's. Then last year the Georgia Bureau of Investigation laboratory conducting the tests reported it had tainted the Thurmond evidence. Prosecutors then argued only the Dimenstein test was valid, but Gary was not convicted of Dimenstein's strangling.

Though Gary lived in Columbus when he was a child, he later moved to New York, where he spent his teen years, and first attracted the attention of law enforcement. He returned to Columbus in August 1977 after escaping from the Onondaga County prison in Syracuse, N.Y.

Here, in chronological order, are the attacks in which he either has been convicted or implicated:

• April 14, 1970: Nellie Farmer, 85, is raped and strangled in the Wellington Hotel in Albany, N.Y. Police said they found Gary's fingerprint on a trunk in the victim's room.

• June 27, 1975: Marion Fisher, 40, is raped and strangled on the roadside by a golf course in Syracuse, N.Y. In 2007, police said a DNA test matched Gary to evidence in the case.

• Jan. 2, 1977: Jean Frost, 55, is raped by an intruder in Syracuse, N.Y., and choked until she's unconscious. Police said Gary had the victim's watch in his pocket when arrested two days later.

• Sept. 11, 1977: Gertrude Miller, 64, of 2703 Hood St., Columbus, is raped and beaten in her home by an intruder she later identifies as Gary. A DNA test on clothing she afterward wore to St. Francis Hospital yielded a profile that did not match Gary.

• Sept. 15, 1977: Ferne Jackson, 60, of 2505 17th St., Columbus, is the first victim in what came to be called the "Stocking Stranglings" because of the killer's preferred ligature.

• Sept. 24, 1977: Jean Dimenstein, 71, of 3027 21st St., is found raped and strangled. The street later is renamed Cross Country Hill.

• Oct. 25, 1977: Martha Thurmond, 69, of 2614 Marion St., is raped and strangled. Gary is convicted of this murder.

• Oct. 21, 1977: Florence Scheible, 89, of 1941 Dimon St., is raped and strangled. Gary is convicted of this murder.

• Dec. 28, 1977: Kathleen Woodruff, 74, of 1811 Buena Vista Road, is raped and strangled. Gary is convicted of this murder.

• Feb. 11, 1978: Ruth Schwob, 71, of 1800 Carter Ave., is nearly strangled to death by an intruder she fights off, pressing a panic alarm by her bed. Her assailant flees, but the next day a victim is found two blocks away.

• Feb. 12, 1978: Mildred Borom, 78, of 1612 Forest Ave., is found raped and strangled.

• April 20, 1978: Janet Cofer, 61, of 3783 Steam Mill Road, is the last "Stocking Stranglings" victim.

Gary was arrested May 3, 1984, in Albany, Ga., after police recovered a gun stolen in a burglary contemporary to the stranglings. They said a fingerprint in that burglary matched Gary and his fingerprints matched those found at four stranglings.

He was convicted Aug. 26, 1986.

Today his defense team will focus on the evidence it claims does not match Gary. Among that evidence:

• A teeth-mark mold cast from a deep bite discovered on Cofer's breast. The lower teeth in that mold look crowded together. Gary's are not. Though he had dental work while in prison, that work was on his upper teeth.

The federal courts already have discounted this evidence in Gary's appeals. Prosecutors here have asked Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr. to take "judicial notice" of those court decisions and not allow the bite-mark mold into evidence as attorneys argue for a new trial. Jordan has declined to do that.

• Another mismatch is a footprint found on the air-conditioning unit from which Ruth Schwob's assailant climbed into her kitchen window. The footprint from a sneaker is size 9½ to 10. Gary's feet are about size 13.

• Also police in Albany, N.Y., said Nellie Farmer's killer stood at her sink and washed himself off, leaving size 9 footprints on her bathroom mat.

• Though DNA testing was not commonplace when Gary was arrested in the 1980s, other chemical tests were. The defense claims evidence from the stranglings showed the killer was a "non-secretor," meaning his semen contained little of the chemical marker evidencing his blood type. Gary was found to be a strong blood type-O secretor, the defense says.

Gary was hours away from lethal injection Dec. 16, 2009, when the Georgia Supreme Court stayed the execution and ordered the Superior Court here to consider DNA-testing any stranglings evidence deemed suitable.

Though matched to Dimenstein, Gary was not matched to Thurmond, the rape from which investigators got their best semen sample. A followup test showed he did not match evidence from the clothes Gertrude Miller wore to the hospital after her assault.

The Thurmond test boosted defense hopes of having further evidence of Gary's innocence -- until prosecutors last year filed documents claiming the GBI tainted the Thurmond test with a laboratory control sample, a known DNA profile used to test equipment.

They said the control sample had turned up in another case, so the state ordered that test sample to be included in Georgia's DNA database, in case it matched other evidence. That revealed it contaminated the Thurmond test, prosecutors said.

They have discounted the Miller test, saying the clothes Miller wore to St. Francis Hospital may not have been the clothes she was wearing when her assailant raped her.

The new trial hearing before Judge Jordan today starts at 10 a.m. on the Columbus Government Center's 10th floor, where extra security will be present not only for Gary's hearing, but for a murder trial in Judge William Rumer's courtroom on the same floor.

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