Stocking Strangler defense seeks clemency, says case against him ‘not in fact true’

Looking Back: Carlton Gary and the Stocking Stranglings

Journalist and author Billy Winn, the former editorial page editor at The Ledger-Enquirer, shares his thoughts on Carlton Gary and the "Stocking Stanglings."
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Journalist and author Billy Winn, the former editorial page editor at The Ledger-Enquirer, shares his thoughts on Carlton Gary and the "Stocking Stanglings."

Attorneys for convicted Columbus “Stocking Strangler” Carlton Gary are asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his death sentence to life in prison based on new evidence they say exonerates him in the serial killings of seven older Columbus women in 1977 and ’78.

A jury in August 1986 convicted Gary in three of the seven rapes and stranglings and sentenced him to death. His execution is set for 7 p.m. March 15 at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. His hearing before the parole board will be the day before.

Prosecutors during Gary’s trial used evidence from all seven stranglings and from other, similar assaults to illustrate the pattern of a ritual serial killer who always used a ligature, usually the victims’ stockings, and left the bodies covered. The defense maintains that any evidence from those cases that doesn’t match Gary clears him, as it means he can’t be the sole perpetrator as the prosecution claimed.

All of the evidence cited in the clemency application has been considered by the courts in Gary’s appeals, and rejected as insufficiently “material” to have altered the outcome of his trial and sentencing.

Here is that evidence:

On Sept. 11, 1977, Gertrude Miller, 64, was beaten with a board and raped in her 2703 Hood St. home. Her assailant left behind knotted stockings he took from her dresser. Miller in 1986 identified Gary as her rapist, but a 2012 DNA test on clothing she wore to the hospital yield a profile that didn’t match Gary.

Miller has died since Gary’s trial.

“This newly discovered evidence, not available at the time of Mr. Gary’s trial, thoroughly undermines the identification of Ms. Miller, one of the key pillars of the state’s case against Mr. Gary,” wrote attorneys John “Jack” Martin and Michael McIntyre of Atlanta. “We now know for a fact that Ms. Miller was mistaken when she identified Mr. Gary as her rapist.”

Also presented during Gary’s trial was evidence the strangler was a “weak or non-secretor,” meaning the killer’s semen showed little or no evidence of his blood Type O. Secretors make up about 80 percent of the population; non-secretors only 20 percent. Gary’s blood is Type O, but he later was found to be a normal secretor.

The semen evidence came from the Oct. 21, 1977, rape and strangling of Florence Scheible, 89, in her 1941 Dimon St. home, which today has a different address, and from the Oct. 25, 1977, murder of Martha Thurmond, 70, found raped and strangled with a stocking in her 2614 Marion St. home.

“This evidence would have proven that there is no way that Mr. Gary could have been the person who was the rapist in the Thurmond and Scheible cases, because that person was a non-secretor and Mr. Gary is a secretor,” his attorneys wrote.

On Feb. 11, 1978, Ruth Schwob, 74, of 1800 Carter Ave., was nearly strangled to death by an intruder she fought off, pressing a panic alarm by her bed. Police found her with a stocking wrapped around her neck. On an outdoor air-conditioning unit the intruder stood upon to climb into a window, investigators found a shoe print. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent bought a shoe matching the print, and kept a photocopy of the sole. It was a size 10. Gary wears a size 13½.

On April 20, 1978, Janet Cofer, 61, of 3783 Steam Mill Road, was found raped and strangled with a stocking. The coroner found a bite mark on her left breast, and had a dentist create a mold from it. The indentations indicate the killer had a space between his upper, front teeth and a crooked lower tooth.

During Gary’s appeal hearings, defense witnesses testified Gary’s teeth had no such flaws in the late 1970s. If they had, he would not have been hired as a model for TV commercials advertising The Moving Man clothing store that then was downtown, they said.

“Based on this uncontradicted evidence a jury would likely have had a reasonable doubt about Mr. Gary’s being the attacker of Ms. Cofer thereby further undermining the state’s entire prosecution theory,” the attorneys wrote.

The defense also challenged fingerprints police said placed Gary at some of the crime scenes. Gary’s attorneys argued detectives used insufficient points of comparison to declare a match and failed to photograph the prints as they found them, to document their locations.

Gary was arrested in Albany, Ga., on May 3, 1984, and brought back to Columbus. Early the next morning, he took police on a driving tour of the area where the stranglings occurred, pointing out some victims’ homes, and claiming to have been present during the murders while blaming them on another man.

The detectives accompanying him did not record the statement or type it out for him to sign.

The fact that Gary was able to provide specific details of the crimes means nothing, his attorneys said, because another suspect did the same earlier, and that man, Jerome Livas, likely would have been charged had the serial killings not continued while he was in custody:

“Here, the police practices in obtaining claimed confessions, assumed to be reliable based upon the recitation of verifiable details, are particularly suspect in light of the detailed confession of Jerome Livas, who was determined to be absolutely innocent when the strangling murders continued after his arrest…. Simply put, the unrecorded and undocumented claimed custodial statement of Mr. Gary, contrary to best police practices, especially in light of the claimed Livas confession, fits all the recognized hallmarks of a false confession that never occurred.”

Gary last was to die by lethal injection in December 2009, but the state Supreme Court stayed his execution and sent the case back to Muscogee Superior Court, with instructions to consider DNA-testing any evidence still suitable. The defense and prosecution in February 2010 agreed to test specific items they had examined.

Prosecutors later announced a test matched Gary’s DNA to a profile found in vaginal washings from the Sept. 24, 1977, rape and stranging of Jean Dimenstein, 71, who lived at 3027 21st St., an address that since has changed.

The defense challenged this as well, arguing the match should have been confirmed with a followup test, but the evidence was not maintained. His attorneys noted also that Gary was never convicted in the Dimenstein case.

In conclusion, they wrote:

“Simply put, this evidence shows that the state’s theory that Mr. Gary was a serial killer who had committed seven different rape/murders was not in fact true. These are the types of circumstances that call for the commutation of Mr. Gary’s sentence of death.”

The parole board must act to avoid executing someone who’s not guilty, they said:

“There is nothing more terrifying and horrible than for the state to take the life of an actually innocent citizen and this board stands as a bulwark against that calamity. Here, there is just too much doubt about Mr. Gary’s guilt not known at the time of his trial to countenance his execution. We are not talking about questionable recanting witnesses who came forward long after trial, but hard physical evidence of innocence.”

Besides the murders of Thurmond and Scheible, Gary was convicted in the Dec. 28, 1977, rape and strangling of Kathleen Woodruff, 74, found dead in her 1811 Buena Vista Road home, which later was demolished during an Aflac expansion.

Born Carlton Michael Gary in Columbus on Sept. 24, 1950, Gary today is 67, and remains on death row in the Jackson prison.