The cold case conviction of Michael L. Curry survived a major judicial test, as the Georgia Supreme Court today rejected his appeal and found no grounds to contradict the jury that found him guilty of slaughtering his family with a bush ax more than two decades ago.
The much anticipated opinion, issued more than a year after a sensational trial that captivated Columbus, secured the biggest victory of District Attorney Julia Slater's first term in an election year, but further rankled Curry's defense team, which has maintained that Slater failed to prove the circumstantial case.
"It put a sour taste in my mouth," said public defender Bob Wadkins, who accused the high court of "glossing over" his arguments. "I’m really disappointed that the court wouldn’t look at the case closely, and I think they just superficially affirmed it without really doing a scholarly analysis."
Slater did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A Muscogee County jury last year convicted Curry of killing his pregnant wife, Ann, 4-year-old daughter Erika and 20-month-old son Ryan with a bush ax he kept in a rear storage room of the family's east Columbus home. Curry reported finding his slain family about 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 29, 1985, after returning home from The Bradley Center, his place of employment.
The murders remained unsolved until Slater’s first year in office, when she pursued a case her predecessors had long eschewed. In her bid for re-election in November, Slater has cited the Curry case as an example of her “courage” and willingness to take “calculated risks” in prosecuting cold cases, which tend to pose a host of challenges.
“From a political standpoint, it couldn’t have come at a better time for her, although there may be some backlash to it,” Wadkins said of the Supreme Court opinion. “There are a lot of people in this county who think this thing was a raw deal.”
Family members of the victims, having waited a generation for justice, breathed a collective sight of relief that Curry’s conviction cleared an important hurdle. Ann Curry’s mother, Bernice Johnson, called the Supreme Court’s ruling “an answer to prayer.”
“We’re very relieved that the appeals court unanimously upheld the guilty verdict of Michael Curry,” she said, “and we shall always be grateful to Detective Randy Long and our District Attorney, Mrs. Slater, for seeking justice for Ann and the children.”
A grand jury indicted Curry for murder in May 2009. In April 2011, he was found guilty and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, requiring him to serve at least 30 years before he'll be eligible for parole.
On appeal, Curry claimed the circumstantial evidence Slater presented wasn't sufficient to prove his guilt. The state's high court unanimously disagreed, ruling the "evidence authorized the jury to find Curry guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted.”
At trial, Slater had walked jurors through an at times tenuous sequence of circumstantial evidence, portraying Curry as an unfaithful husband who was seeking to escape a marriage and family he was increasingly struggling to afford. She told jurors there were no other reasonable scenarios that pointed to someone else committing the murders.
The timing of the killings became a key element in the case. The defense argued the time frame made it impossible that Curry was the killer, while prosecutors said Curry couldn't account for his whereabouts for the whole time he was away from work.
Curry did not testify, leaving many questions unanswered when the jury began its deliberations. (The jury foreman, in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer last year, said jurors had wondered why an innocent man wouldn’t be eager to take the stand in his own defense.)
Curry's appeal also claimed prosecutors improperly commented on his right to remain silent. A police investigator, for instance, had testified that Curry had no response to several questions about the crime during a police interview. Curry's defense cited a state Supreme Court precedent that prohibits the prosecution from commenting on a defendant's silence prior to arrest or his failure to come forward voluntarily.
But the high court found no reversible error, noting Curry's defense did not object at trial and therefore failed to preserve a challenge for appeal. "In any event, the investigator's testimony concerned Curry's silence in response to questions after Curry had been advised of his Miranda rights and had waived his right to remain silent," the opinion states. "As Curry did not invoke his right to remain silent during the interview, the testimony regarding Curry's failure to respond to these questions was admissible."
The court also noted the defense's failure to object to Johnson's testimony, who told jurors she asked Curry after the funeral whether he killed his family or knew who had, and that he did not answer her. "Curry made no objection to Johnson's testimony or the question that prompted it," the court held, "and any challenge to it has not been preserved for appellate review."
Curry's defense contended his due process rights had been violated by the lengthy delay between the crimes and the indictment. But the Supreme Court noted there is no applicable statute of limitation for murder.
“Hence any prejudice which results merely from the passage of time cannot create the requisite prejudice," the opinion reads. “Further, although Curry contends that the State’s delay in seeking an indictment against him was unjustified, he cites no evidence to establish bad faith on the State’s part.”
Wadkins said Curry still has additional judicial remedies to pursue, but that those avenues would be explored by a separate appellate counsel. Asked in a telephone interview whether he believed his client to be innocent, Wadkins said, "My opinion makes no difference whatsoever, but I think that with the evidence that was put up, there’s no proof that he did anything."
"It’s just all supposition," he added.