Atlanta attorney and former Columbus resident Gary Parker, a longtime death penalty opponent, said Thursday morning he will do everything he can “to stop the state of Georgia from killing” Ricardo Strozier.
Afterward, he agreed to become a consultant for Strozier’s defense team. Strozier faces the death penalty if convicted of the Sept. 7, 2010, fatal shooting of Columbus radio DJ Heath Jackson.
Parker was in Muscogee County Superior Court observing as Judge Gil McBride worked through a lengthy stack of 127 pretrial motions, mostly filed by Strozier’s defense team. Parker did not sit at the defense table, but took notes during the morning session.
H. Burton Baker, the state-funded lead defense attorney, said Parker would not be an attorney of record, but would provide advice for the defense. Asked if he welcomed Parker’s help, Baker responded, “Absolutely.”
Parker has been involved in at least a half a dozen death penalty defenses in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit — including convicted Stocking Stranger Carlton Gary — and dozens across the state.
“I have been battling this circuit for 30 years to dismantle its killing machine,” said Parker, who lived and practiced in Columbus until 1990 when he moved his office to Atlanta.
District Attorney Julia Slater had little reaction to Parker’s involvement with the defense. “He has competent counsel now,” Slater said.
This is the first death penalty case brought by Slater, who has just started her second four-year term as the county’s chief prosecutor. This is also the first death penalty case for McBride, who has been on the bench for more than four years.
Parker, during a break, said the state’s case against Strozier “was not a death verdict case.”
“My job is to bring closure to the victim’s family and the defendant,” Parker said. “I don’t take any pleasure in being involved in these cases. What the families have to go through in these cases is horrendous. It is tragic and there are not any winners.”
Jackson’s mother and other family members sat through the hearing.
McBride systematically moved through the stack of motions, setting aside about 20 that involve evidence issues. Those will be taken up beginning May 20. No trial date has been set, but Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly said it could last two to three weeks. Baker indicated that in a recent south Georgia death penalty case he tried, it took eight days to question, strike and seat a jury.
Much of Tuesday’s hearing — which included no testimony — involved potential jurors.
McBride denied a defense motion that would have required the prosecution to provide the defense with criminal histories and furnish the social security numbers of witnesses.
At one point, he was considering a defense request to provide daycare compensation for potential jurors.
“If I follow your logic, how do I compensate the small business owner, the CPA, the attorney or dentist?” McBride said in denying the motion.
The judge also agreed to allow attorneys leeway in questioning potential jurors about race. Baker argued that blacks convicted of killing whites in Georgia are far more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who are convicted of killing blacks. Baker said this line of questioning was “essential” to his case.
Slater argued that the defense’s effort “to determine if there was a bias could create a bias.”
In ruling in the defense’s favor, McBride warned, “I don’t want to be overstated in terms of the significance of this.”
The judge did grant a motion to allow the defense team to visit the crime scene during trial preparation. He also ruled that media members could use the social media site Twitter during the trial, though McBride admitted he was not a Twitter user.
There was an emotional moment when the defense withdrew a motion that would protect the jury from the Jackson family. Baker admitted he filed the motion before any of the hearings on the case.
“The Jackson family has been extremely gracious,” Baker said as he pulled back the motion. Jackson’s mother and other family members wiped away tears during that late-afternoon segment of the hearing. After the hearing, the defense attorney approached the Jackson family and had a brief conversation. Baker declined to say what was said.