Setting a hearing for Feb. 1, a Muscogee Superior Court judge is giving the prosecution and defense a month to explore issues related to DNA-testing evidence from Columbus’ 1970s “Stocking Stranglings” to see if it matches condemned serial killer Carlton Gary.
Issuing his order Monday in a letter to District Attorney Julia Slater and defense attorney Jack Martin, Judge Robert Johnston set the hearing on the DNA tests for 10:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 1, in his courtroom on the Columbus Government Center’s 11th floor.
The judge says he will hear any “pertinent issues” the two sides want to discuss, but is particularly concerned with five matters.
One is “chain of custody,” meaning authorities must establish that the evidence securely was collected, transported and stored without being tampered with or otherwise tainted.
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Other concerns are the availability of the evidence the defense wants tested and the expense of conducting such tests. Determining which evidence is suitable for testing and finding a laboratory to do the work are the other two issues Johnston wants to discuss.
To Slater and Martin, the judge wrote: “These 30-plus days should give each of you a reasonable amount of time to research these issues. The court is open to hearing arguments for and against DNA testing and will entertain any pertinent issues related to that.”
Before DNA testing was available, Gary in 1986 was convicted in three of the seven brutal rapes and stranglings that terrorized Columbus in 1977 and 1978. The victims all were older women, most of whom lived in the city’s Wynnton area.
Now 59, Gary was four hours away from execution at Georgia’s death-row prison in Jackson on Dec. 16 when the state Supreme Court issued a stay and ordered the local court to hold a hearing on the defense motion for DNA testing.
This is the evidence the defense wants DNA-tested:
— In the Oct. 21, 1977, murder of Florence Scheible, 89, “a glass slide from a sample of a sheet from underneath the victim where chemical testing … suggested the presence of semen,” and a hair found between Scheible’s legs.
— In the Oct. 25, 1977, murder of Martha Thurmond, 69, two glass slides labeled “sperm slides,” the numbers on which indicate they include samples of semen recovered from Thurmond’s abdomen and bedding. A GBI crime lab report states spermatozoa “were observed in the semen sample” from her abdomen.
— In the Dec. 28, 1977, murder of Kathleen Woodruff, 74, a glass slide labeled “sperm slide,” which may be “from a white sheet on which chemical examination … suggested the presence of semen.”
— In the April 20, 1978, strangling of Janet Cofer, 61, scrapings from underneath her fingernails.
Gary’s defense team also wrote in a Dec. 7 motion for testing that “numerous other items” may contain DNA, including stained clothing and bedding, hairs found on the victims and fingernail scrapings.
The defense says that in the Feb. 12, 1978, strangling of Mildred Borom, 78, there may be slides from a sheet and a wash cloth on which crime lab technicians found spermatozoa, and a vaginal swab from the Sept. 25, 1977, strangling of Jean Dimenstein, 71, also may exist.
Gary was convicted of murder in the deaths of Scheible, Thurmond and Woodruff.