After 12 years in prison, a Columbus man’s murder conviction is overturned

What is the difference between probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt?

There is a difference between the evidence needed to make an arrest and the evidence needed for prosecutors to get a conviction. Jimmy Richardson, a solicitor, explains the difference between the two.
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There is a difference between the evidence needed to make an arrest and the evidence needed for prosecutors to get a conviction. Jimmy Richardson, a solicitor, explains the difference between the two.

The Georgia Supreme Court has overturned a Columbus man’s murder conviction for a fatal 2006 shooting, ruling that both the suspect’s trial lawyer and appeals attorney failed to present evidence contradicting a police officer’s testimony the alleged killer offered no alibi immediately after his arrest.

The ruling means Derrick Cartwright now is entitled to a new trial in the April 3, 2006, slaying of Kevin Stafford, who was shot in the neck around 4 a.m. at Sixth Avenue and 35th Street before crashing his car as he tried to get away.

Cartwright went to trial from April 30 to May 3, 2007. Prosecutors had four eyewitnesses who said they saw him shoot Stafford, but their testimony was inconsistent on certain details. The defense challenged their credibility on the basis two had felony drug convictions, and one of those admitted using cocaine right before the shooting. A third was facing felony charges when he testified.

Cartwright had five defense witnesses testify he was asleep on the couch in his family’s apartment the night Stafford was shot. He blamed the shooting on one of the people who testified against him, an alleged cocaine dealer.

The jury convicted Cartwright of murder, aggravated assault and using a gun to commit a crime. He was sentenced to life in prison. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 2012.

But that 2012 decision was based solely on what was in the trial record, and not what was missing because the attorney in Cartwright’s appeal didn’t present it.

During Cartwright’s 2007 trial, a crucial prosecution witness, police Detective Andrew Tyner, said Cartwright never mentioned an alibi after his arrest. But the lead police investigator in the case, Bernard Spicer, had testified during Cartwright’s May 2006 preliminary hearing in Recorder’s Court that Tyner had told him the suspect had an alibi.

During Cartwright’s trial, his defense attorney never called Spicer to the witness stand to refute Tyner’s testimony. The prosecutor alleged Cartwright came up with the alibi after his arrest, then enlisted family and friends to corroborate it. With no one to contradict it, Tyner’s testimony that Cartwright had no immediate alibi was “undisputed,” the prosecutor said.

During Cartwright’s initial appeals, a second defense attorney also failed to call Spicer to testify or to introduce a transcript of Spicer’s Recorder’s Court testimony. Because of that, “Cartwright has failed to establish a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different if Detective Spicer’s testimony had been introduced to impeach that of Detective Tyner,” the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012.

Cartwright’s first appeals attorney since has died. In 2016, his new attorney, J. Mark Shelnutt, filed a habeas corpus appeal. It’s a civil action against the prison warden, the authority holding the defendant in custody. Habeas corpus has been established by law since the nation’s founding, when the Constitution’s framers feared the government’s holding people prisoner without cause. It requires the authority holding the inmate to justify for the person’s imprisonment.

When a Superior Court judge in Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit denied Cartwright a writ of habeas corpus, Cartwright appealed that to the Georgia Supreme Court, and this time Shelnutt presented an affidavit from Spicer stating Tyner told him Cartwright had mentioned his alibi.

Because the prosecution relied so heavily on Tyner’s testimony to argue Cartwright invented his alibi later, Spicer’s testimony to the contrary might have led to a different verdict, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday, so Cartwright now is entitled to a new trial, because his previous attorneys were ineffective.

That means the case now comes back to Muscogee Superior Court, where prosecutors either have to try Cartwright again or seek some other resolution, such as a plea agreement in which the time Cartwright already has served is considered sufficient, Shelnutt said. “If not, we’ll be ready to go to trial on it,” he said.

When such convictions are reversed, they add to Columbus’ load of pending murder cases yet to go to trial. “It adds to the problem with the backlog, because it’s another murder case,” Shelnutt said.

Typically the older cases get priority on upcoming trial calendars, he said.

“The practical effect is his conviction is vacated,” the attorney said. Cartwright still will be held on the murder charge, but a Superior Court judge now may grant him a bond, possibly leading to his release as he awaits trial. “We will definitely file a bond motion,” Shelnutt said.

District Attorney Julia Slater said her staff has not yet decided whether to retry Cartwright. “We are evaluating the case to determine our next step,” she said.

Cartwright began serving his life sentence on June 14, 2007, and currently is held in the Wilcox State Prison in Abbeville, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

On Thursday, sheriff’s Maj. Joe McCrea said the Muscogee County Jail held 65 inmates awaiting trial on murder charges, a slight decrease from a recent peak of 70.

Attorney Jennifer Curry represented 24-year-old Keonte Williams Thursday morning in Columbus Recorder's Court. He was charged in the April 2014 armed robbery at a Rosemont Drive apartment. She said the state didn't have enough probable cause to c

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.