Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen held an unusual hearing Thursday on a murder case that was older than the prosecutor assigned to defend it.
Assistant District Attorney William Hocutt, 37, was in Allen’s court to answer inmate Charles Edward Pace’s claims that an autopsy on the man Pace was convicted of blasting with a sawed-off shotgun 38 years ago turned up a bullet, offering fresh evidence for a new trial.
Pace wanted the bullet found and ballistics-tested. Allen denied Pace’s motions, noting that other courts have rejected Pace’s claims, that Pace already has served his time on the murder charge, and that Pace now has a life sentence for 1990s drug offenses subsequent to his 1974 murder conviction.
Hocutt said after Thursday’s hearing that Pace regularly raises such claims to try to have his murder conviction overturned, years after his July 1974 trial.
During his trial, Pace, who chose to represent himself rather than rely on a public defender, admitted shooting at men in a car going south on Victory Drive around 2 a.m. April 28, 1974. Milton Jones, who was driving the car in which Eddie Lee Carter, 29, was a passenger, said Pace raced ahead of them, pulled over, got a shotgun out of his trunk and opened fire. Pace claimed he fired in self-defense, but witnesses said Pace was never fired upon, and his ambushing the men showed his attack was deliberate and premeditated — a “brutal, willful and wanton disregard for human life,” as then-District Attorney Bill Smith told the jury.
Jones, then 24, was wounded in the back of his head and his right hand. Carter, riding in the front passenger seat, was shot in his right ear and right shoulder. After the Sunday morning shooting, Jones immediately drove to the hospital, where Carter died from his wounds the following Thursday, May 2.
After a day-long trial on July 16, 1974, a jury deliberated less than an hour before finding Pace, then 21, guilty of murder and aggravated assault. Then-Judge John Land sentenced him to life.
His conviction and sentence later were upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, Allen noted Thursday. “I can’t go back and retry the case,” he told Pace, who was paroled in 1986.
Asked why he was seeking a new murder trial after having already served that time, Pace told Allen that he would not be in prison on drug offenses now had his parole not been revoked because of the murder.
If the autopsy turned up a bullet, as Pace believes was described in the autopsy report, then he’s entitled to that evidence, Pace said.
“Thirty-eight years later?” Allen asked.
Yes, Pace replied.
Hocutt said Pace is living in a fantasy in which he remains in denial about the evidence in his murder case. Pace’s sawed-off shotgun “filled the whole car with shotgun pellets,” Hocutt said, and a “shapeless mass,” about the size of a .22-caliber bullet, found during Carter’s autopsy likely came from shotgun pellets. Hocutt said Pace is in prison today because he was charged with possessing cocaine in 1991 and again in 1993, so his recidivism earned him the life sentence. Allen told Pace that to be granted a new trial, he must raise some constitutional issue that justifies it. The hearing concluded without the courtroom drama Pace had predicted this past March 28 in a letter to the Ledger-Enquirer:
“There will be many surprises at this hearing regarding the police department, coroner’s office and district attorney’s office,” he wrote. “They are not going to enjoy being exposed.”