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July 13, 2001

Madison County

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June 29, 2001

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Closing arguments in the Tracy Lea Fortson murder trial were scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
Fortson is charged with the 2000 murder of ex-boy friend Doug Benton of Colbert whose body was found June of last year encased in cement in a wooded area in Oglethorpe County.
The prosecution, which opened their case at approximately 2 p.m. Tuesday, rested shortly after lunch at 1:50 p.m. Thursday.
After the prosecution closed their case, defense attorney Tom Camp asked that the case be thrown out due to insufficient evidence against Fortson.Judge Lindsay Tise denied the request and the defense then rested their case without calling any witnesses.
In the afternoon before closing arguments, District Attorney Bob Lavender called Madison County Sherrif's Investigators Cody Cross and Buck Scoggins to the stand. Scoggins said they arrived at Benton's house June 17 and found Benton's pet birds dead and also found tire marks near the deck of Benton's home. Scoggins also testified that he interviewed Forston who told him that she and the victim had broken up.
During the morning hours, Lavender called four witnesses to the stand. Among those providing testimonies were Benton's best friend Jeff Bennett and GBI special agent Ralph Stone.
Bennett said Fortson and Benton were "having problems" in their relationship and that he advised his friend to break up with Fortson.
Agent Stone testified that he believed the murderer had committed "staging" at the crime scene in order to throw police off.
The Madison County Journal
Danielsville, Georgia
Telephone: (706) 367-5233
Fax: (706) 367-8056

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Wednesday testimony in Fortson murder trial focuses on expert analysis
Wednesday- the second day of testimony in the Tracy Fortson murder trial, got underway with a parade of law enforcement and forensics experts who presented a battery of evidence to the jury on blood, DNA, handwriting, cement samples and other items involved in the state's case against Fortson.
Forston is accused in the June 2000 murder of her former boyfriend, Colbert resident Doug Benton, whose body was found several weeks later encased in a cement watering trough in a remote area of Oglethorpe County.
The most damaging evidence of the day came from two employees of Southern States, an Athens farm and garden supply store, who testified that Fortson purchased a galvanized steel watering trough, two feet deep, two feet wide and six feet long, along with ten 80 pound bags of ready mix cement on June 4, the last day anyone reportedly saw Doug
Benton alive.
Store manager Sherry Michael, who knows Fortson and has ridden horses with her in the past, said Fortson told her she wanted the cement to build a pad for a dog pen and was asking questions about how much she would need for such a project.
Dr. Jeffrey P. Smith, a forensic pathologist with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's crime lab in Decatur, testified that he performed an autopsy on Benton's decomposed body on June 20, when it arrived at the crime lab still embedded in cement and wrapped in various material inside a metal trough.
Smith testified that the body was 71 inches long and weighed a mere 113 pounds, due to its state of "moderate to severe composition."
Smith said the body had ten stab wounds to its lower portion, including the abodmen, buttocks and legs, and a single close range gunshot wound to the top of the head. He retrieved a "small calibur bullet" from the Benton's brain.
On cross examination from Fortson's attorney Thomas Camp, Smith said, in his opinion, the wounds which were caused by a sharp object, such as a knife, were inflicted "at or near the time of death," and not caused, at Camp had suggested, by the attempted extrication of the body from the trough at the time of its discovery.
He said death was caused by "a combined effect of stab wounds and the gunshot."
GBI firearms expert Bernadette Beatty testified that a rifle belonging to Fortson was most likely the weapon that fired the bullet found in Benton. The bullet also matched ammunition recovered from Fortson's home.
Other expert witnesses also testified about blood stains found on the couch and other areas of the home as well as liquid stains, such as kerosene and a "kerosene odor" noticed in the home and burned out candles near the couch where Benton is believed to have been shot.
GBI handwriting expert Arthur T. Anthony said a note found on the victim's truck was not written by Benton. After analyzing samples of Fortson's writing, Anthony said he came to the conclusion that "Tracy Fortson probably prepared the writing."
Camp attempted to throw suspicion away from his client by repeatedly asking witnesses if they had examined, searched or analyzed material, possessions, blood or handwriting from Jerry Alexander or Jeff Bennett, two of Benton's close friends. The last witness of the day was Alexander, who testified that he discovered Benton's truck parked in the yard of his home in Lexingon on Tuesday morning, June 6, with a note attached to the driver's side window. He said the note stated "don't call me, I'll get in touch with you."On cross examination from Camp, Alexander denied having anything to do with Benton's disappearance or murder, or that he had deliberately attempted to throw suspicion to Fortson from the beginning. "I loved Doug with all my heart, we were real close friends," Alexander said.

Fortson stands trial for murder DA, defense give opening arguments, call first witnesses
The Tracy Lea Fortson murder trial got under way Tuesday afternoon with District Attorney Bob Lavender presenting evidence linking Fortson to the murder of Doug Benton of Colbert. But defense attorney Tom Camp described his client as "an innocent victim who was wrongly accused.
Fortson, a former Oglethorpe County deputy sheriff, is being tried for the murder of Benton. She is accused of shooting and stabbing him, encasing his body in cement and trying to burn his house to hide evidence. She faces charges of malice murder, felony murder, and two counts of assault and attempted arson.
Lavender told the jury of 10 women and four men, including alternates, that Fortson killed Benton in his home, shooting him in the head and stabbing him several times. He said Fortson then hid the body in a horse trough, filled it with cement and dumped in on a remote farm in Oglethorpe County. Lavender said that evidence will show that Fortson was familiar with the location where the body was found, that she purchased the horse trough and cement at an Athens farm supply, that bullets of the same type that killed Doug Benton were found in her home and that damage to trees at the farm matched damage to her truck.
Lavender said cement splatters and potting soil identical to that used to hide the body were found in Fortson's truck and that one of the shower curtains used to wrap the body was similar to one she purchased at an Athens store. He said that paint used to camouflage the horse trough was identical to paint found at Fortson's home, and on her mailbox.
He said that Benton's truck was left at a friend's house with a note taped to the windshield saying he would be gone for a while and asking the friend to take care of the truck. He said the note was attached to the windshield with fingerprint tape used by law enforcement personnel.
But Camp said the investigation was blotched from the beginning and that investigators "failed to follow obvious leads" that would have implicated other people. He said that all evidence against Fortson was circumstantial and contained gaping holes.
Camp asked the jury not to form opinions about the evidence offered by witnesses until he had a chance to cross-examine them.
"I have a disadvantage because I have to go second," he said.
He insisted that no witnesses saw Fortson kill Benton. No one saw her place the body in the horse trough. No one saw her dump the body in Oglethorpe County.
The first witness, Larry Bridges, lives across the road from Benton's house near Colbert. He reported last seeing Benton on June 4, 2000, and that Fortson's truck was present at Benton's house that evening. He said that after not seeing Benton for several days he went to the house on June 17 to check and found a number of Benton's exotic birds were dead in their cages. He called the Madison County Sheriff's office.
On cross-examination, Bridges said he did not see any unusual objects in Fortson's truck at that time.
Officer Thomas Lutz of the Madison County Sheriff's office responded to the call. He checked the house and found it secure. He started a missing person investigation that included conversations with Bridges and his live-in girlfriend Lisa Watson. He called Fortson to ask if she knew of his whereabouts and found her to be cooperative. She gave him several people to contact. During a later call, he asked her about an argument with the victim and she became angry and refused to talk.
Lutz responded to a report that Benton's truck was located at the home of his friend Jerry Alexander near Lexington. He retrieved a note that had been taped to the windshield and had the truck removed to the Madison County Sheriffs office.
Under cross-examination, Lutz said that his first call to Fortson was very satisfactory, but she was not cooperative on the second call. He acknowledged that Alexander was upset at the removal of the truck from his property without Benton's approval. He said he could not be100 percent sure that the tape on the note was fingerprint tape.
Lisa Watson was called and confirmed the statements of Larry Bridges.
She added the information that she had heard a gunshot come from the direction of Benton's house on the last day he was seen and that Fortson left about an hour later.
She admitted to defense attorney Camp that she had not reported the gunshot until much later. She said she did not think much of it at the time because people shoot guns in the area often. She said she did not see any things in the back of Fortson's truck that day but that she could not see the back of the truck from her house.
Rob Postin, manager of RSE Farms near Stevens, Ga., told about going to rescue a damaged four-wheeler on the back of the farm and spotting the trough. He described efforts to open the trough with a tractor, punching holes in the trough. Liquid and a strong odor came from the trough, causing him to suspect a problem. He called the Oglethorpe County Sheriff's office. Investigators, including a GBI agent, used a mallet and screwdriver to open one corner of the trough and discovered the body inside.
On cross-examination, Postin said that Fortson often hunted on the farm and he would have recognized her truck if he had seen it. He agreed that punch marks on the bottom of the trough made by the screwdriver were located where Benton's buttocks and legs were lying. That is the same area that stab wounds were found on the body. He admitted that he had moved the tank from its original position before calling the sheriff's office.
Mike Smith, former chief investigator for the Oglethorpe County Sheriff's Office said that he and a GBI agent responded to the call. He said they were unable to open the trough and called for EMS agents to help. They managed to open the trough and found the body. Smith said he recognized the victim because of a tattoo on his arm.
Smith told the defense that he saw the trough in the woods and that it was moved by the tractor during efforts to break up the cement. He also agreed that the punctures in the trough were where Benton's legs and buttocks were located. He acknowledged that the GBI crime scene expert was not called to the site until well after the body and trough was removed.
Testimony was scheduled to continue Wednesday morning.

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Fortson trial won't be televised by Court TV
Cable television's Court TV was denied permission Tuesday to tape the Fortson murder trial for broadcast later.
Judge Lindsay Tise ruled Tuesday against the allowance of cameras in the courtroom. The judge held a hearing Monday morning to receive comments from attorneys for the TV company along with prosecution and defense attorneys.
Attorney Jack Dalton of Troutman and Sanders of Atlanta stated that Court TV would use one special camera that does not require additional lighting and operates silently. It would be mounted at a fixed location and not moved around the courtroom. He said that the producers would not picture the jury, or any witness the judge feels needs to be protected. He told Judge Tise that editing of the program would be under his direction.
District attorney Bob Lavender expressed his concern for a fair trial. He worried that the camera would have a chilling effect on people involved in the case. He strongly objected to the suggestion that microphones be placed at the prosecution and defense desks, saying that many discussions between him and his staff would be privileged.
Defense attorney Tom Camp agreed with Lavender's assessments and added his "vehement" opposition to microphones at his desk. Camp argued that Court TV is a for-profit operation and that he has not given permission for his or his client's image to be broadcast on commercial television.
He said that the right of individuals to control the use of their image is a serious concern. He was also concerned about the impact TV would have on the children of the victim and the accused.
Judge Tise asked Camp what his responsibility in the courtroom was. Camp responded that he has to be aware of everything going on in the courtroom. Judge Tise asked if the TV camera would affect how he did his job. Camp responded that in some cases it would.
Mr. Dalton responded that "the public has a right to know, that the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that with the presiding Judge's permission, the camera has a right to be in the courtroom and that the public has a full right to witness a trial through the media."
Judge Tise asked Dalton if he had tried cases with cameras in the courtroom. Dalton said that he has. Judge Tise asked him what was on his mind during the trials. Dalton responded that his full attention was on the judge and witnesses.
"Were you aware of the camera?" Judge Tise asked.
"Not after the first day," Dalton responded.
Judge Tise said that his concern is that "this defendant has a fair
trial." His primary concern was whether the camera will have an effect on witnesses.