Twenty-three years after he shot Forrest Road gas station manager Billy Lynn in a botched robbery attempt and 19 after he appealed his murder conviction and death sentence, Ward Anthony Brockman finally got a higher court to rule on his long-delayed appeal.
In its decision published Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected Brockman’s lengthy appeal that relied partly on procedural matters such as jury selection and largely on whether he should have got the death penalty for killing someone while committing a robbery that was never completed.
Brockman’s attorneys argued their client never actually robbed Lynn, so his death sentence for felony murder should not have been based on his having killed a man while robbing him. Besides felony murder, Brockman was convicted not of armed robbery but of criminal attempt armed robbery, they noted.
Yet prosecutors used the robbery as the “statutory aggravated circumstance” that justified imposing the death penalty. The Supreme Court ruled Brockman’s completing the robbery wasn’t necessary to supply the aggravating circumstance — just trying to rob Lynn was enough.
Citing the 2010 case of Tate v. State, the justices wrote “a murder may be found to have been committed while the murderer was ‘engaged in the commission’ of an armed robbery even if the attempted armed robbery fails or is otherwise abandoned.” The law does not require that the defendant be convicted of the other felony to justify the death penalty, they wrote.
According to testimony, Brockman and three accomplices met the night of June 26, 1990, at an apartment in Phenix City where Brockman’s girlfriend lived. There they planned to rob several businesses while using as their getaway car a Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z that Brockman had stolen days earlier from a Columbus car dealer.
Brockman had a .38-caliber revolver he got from his girlfriend. The next day he and his cohorts obtained a .22-caliber pistol and a sawed-off shotgun, then went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken where they planned to rob the manager as she left to make a bank deposit.
But their timing was off, and they missed the manager. So they drove to the Premium Oil station Lynn managed, and Brockman some distance away dropped off two of his accomplices who feared Lynn might recognize them. Brockman and his other comrade, Quenton Lewis, pulled up at the gas station about 5:30 p.m., when no other customers were there. Lewis, armed with the shotgun, stayed in the car. Brockman got out when Lynn asked if he could help them. Brockman told authorities he cocked the revolver, pointed it at Lynn and said, “Give me all the money.” Lynn held his arms out and said, “You got it,” but made no move to comply. Brockman demanded money again. Lynn, smiling, again said, “You got it.”
Brockman said, “No, you got it,” and shot Lynn in the gut, killing him.
Brockman later claimed the shooting was accidental. He said Lewis hit him on the shoulder and yelled, “Go!” when Brockman decided to abandon the robbery, and the revolver discharged.
But Lewis said Brockman never cocked the handgun, and had to have deliberately shot Lynn by fully depressing the trigger. Lewis said Brockman later told him he shot Lynn to keep Lynn from “laughing about it with his buddies, telling his buddies that we tried to rob him and didn’t really get no money.”
They really didn’t get any money: Though Lynn had $70 on him, they fled so fast they never checked the victim’s pockets.
They picked up their two accomplices and fled, with Brockman leaving the driving to Lewis. Police broadcast witnesses’ description of the stolen car, and officers spotted it in Phenix City, initiating a chase that reached speeds of more than 100 mph.
The suspects got away, abandoned the car and returned to the girlfriend’s apartment — to which police finally tracked Brockman. He climbed into the attic and tried to hide under insulation until officers threw in tear gas to flush him out. Investigators found the stolen car and, inside it, a criminal to-do list that included stealing a car and robbing the station Lynn managed.
Authorities discovered Brockman had been involved in three armed robberies that month, two of them within 48 hours of Lynn’s death.
Brockman’s trial began on Feb. 28, 1994. He was found guilty on March 11, 1994, and sentenced to death the following day. He filed a standard appeal for a new trial on April 11, 1994.
And then ... nothing: For 15 years, Brockman’s case was in limbo, until finally authorities realized just how long it had languished.
Finally, on June 29, 2009, defense attorneys amended Brockman’s motion for a new trial, and amended it again on Aug. 3 of that year. Muscogee Superior Court Judge Gil McBride denied the motion on Feb. 6, 2012, and Brockman appealed to the state Supreme Court on March 6, 2012. The high court heard arguments on Sept. 11 of last year.
Court administrators cited various reasons for the delay: The court reporter died before completing the transcript, so it wasn’t finished until a second court reporter took the task on four years later; Brockman’s defense team changed; and changes in judges and other court personnel followed.
John Allen, chief judge of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that includes Columbus, assigned the case to a new judge in August 2010.
Monday’s Georgia Supreme Court ruling criticized the delay in a footnote:
“It took far too long for the trial court to consider Brockman’s motion for a new trial ... . The trial court’s findings do not explain or excuse the 18-year interval between the entry of Brockman’s sentence and the denial of his motion for a new trial.”
The justices then quoted an opinion in the case of Arnold v. State, decided this past January:
“Indeed, extended delays in proceedings on motions for a new trial ‘put at risk the rights of defendants and crime victims and the validity of convictions obtained after a full trial,’ and ‘it is the duty of all those involved in the criminal justice system, including trial courts and prosecutors as well as defense counsel and defendants, to ensure that the appropriate post-conviction motions are filed, litigated, and decided without unnecessary delay.’”
The judges concluded: “We urge both counsel and trial courts to be diligent in ensuring that cases proceed in a timely manner.”