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July 13, 2001


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OPINIONS

Margie Richards
Those barefoot summers

This summer reminds me so much of the summers of my childhood - not extremely hot (so far at least) but muggy, almost tropical.

Frank Gillespie
Suit could change ballot access

A major lawsuit against Georgia's election laws has been filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, an event that has been totally ignored by the state's media.


SPORTS

Directions to Area Schools

Junior American Leaguers eliminated despite furious rally
Facing elimination, desperation fueled a frantic rally for the Junior American League all star squad Saturday, but the heroics still weren't enough to keep their postseason run alive.


Neighborhood News...
BANKS COUNTY
Homer council proceeds with new town hall plans
Mayor Leon Ray asked Jason Bond and other members of the Homer Fire Department Tuesday night to figure out what kind of space the department will need in the new town hall and fire station complex.

Movie theater proposed for Banks Crossing
A movie theater company wants to open a business in Banks County. The theater group, which has been talking to the county about moving in, has expressed a need to add an additional 790 parking spaces which required a change in the ordinances.



News from...
JACKSON COUNTY
3 Rabies-Related Incidents Reported
A trio of incidents in and near Commerce have officials concerned about rabid animals.

Maysville man charged in Commerce murder
A Maysville man has been charged with "malice murder" in the Friday stabbing death of Ralph Douglas Stockton, 56, of 68 Chestnut Street, Commerce.


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Malice murder
Fortson sentenced to life for killing Doug Benton
BY ZACH MITCHAM
Jeff Bennett and Jerry Alexander spent an agonizing hour in Madison County Superior Court Thursday as attorney Tom Camp tried to pin the murder of their friend, Doug Benton, on them. The lawyer said the two killed their buddy then tried to frame Tracy Lea Fortson for the crime.
But the jury didn't buy this conspiracy theory, finding the former Oglethorpe County deputy guilty on all counts against her - malice murder, felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault and attempted arson.
Judge Lindsay Tise sentenced Fortson to life in prison on both murder charges, 20 years in confinement on both assault charges and 10 years in jail for attempted arson. He said the assault charges would run concurrent to each other, but consecutive to the life sentences.


Past Stories on the Fortson Trial


Fortson received the punishment for shooting Benton in the head with a 22 caliber rifle last June in his Colbert home as he slept, then stabbing him, wrapping his body in two shower curtains, putting his body in a water trough, filling it with cement, using a rope or cable tied to a tree to pull the entombed man off the back of her pickup in a wooded area in Oglethorpe County, then going back to his house and dousing his living area with kerosene in a failed attempt to burn it down.
District Attorney Bob Lavender told the jury that she committed the horrid act out of spite over a breakup with the victim after a rocky eight-month relationship.
"She was angry," said Lavender. "She was going to get this SOB cause he kicked her out."
As the verdict was read and the sentence issued, Fortson's shoulders shook hard once as she appeared to restrain sobs.
Others in the court were emotional too, but for different reasons, some mourning the loss of Fortson's freedom, others remembering the man they loved and lost.
"Overall, there's still just total sorrow because everybody loses," said the victim's brother, Scott Benton, after the trial.
The verdict followed three days of testimony, with all witnesses called by the prosecution. Surprisingly, the defense called no one to the stand. Instead, Fortson's attorney used cross examinations to try to convince the jury that investigators had botched the case by not checking leads and not considering every angle.
"This is a case based solely on circumstantial evidence," said Camp. "In order to convict on circumstantial evidence, then you must exclude every reasonable theory....The state has not met that burden."
The defense attorney maintained that the prosecution was "trying to make things fit." He questioned why no search warrants were issued for the homes of Alexander and Bennett.
But the DA said there was never any evidence to suggest the guilt of anyone other than Fortson.
"There is no evidence that points to anybody else," said Lavender.
Camp told jurors during his closing argument that Fortson was a religious woman who loved animals. He said she was not "the type of person who would have killed Doug Benton, taken him off in a metal container and left his animals (exotic birds) there to die."
Then the attorney attempted to show that Fortson was an "innocent victim," presenting the theory that Benton's friends - Bennett and Alexander - framed Fortson.
As the lawyer wove the tale, the victim's brother patted Bennett on the back, a show of support in the face of what they said was an atrocious deflection of guilt.
And the jury, too, believed that the yarn spun by Camp only stretched so far. Because Lavender presented a mountain of evidence showing that Fortson acted alone in the murder and the gruesome disposal of Benton's body in a cement-filled water trough.
The prosecutor presented a chilly picture of the defendant, showing the jury a devotional book in which Fortson had written herself a note dated June 10, 2000 - a week after the murder and a week before the discovery of Benton's body.
"Presented to myself by myself on the occasion of his absence from my life," read Fortson's note to herself.
Lavender said Fortson conceived a "good plan" which she would have gotten away with were it not for a couple of "fortuitous" events - a kid's flat tire on a four-wheeler leading the property manager to the remote area where the body was found. There was also the failed attempt to burn the house down. Had the candles Fortson left ignited the kerosene in Benton's home, the case may not have been solved, the DA said.
Lavender showed that Fortson had purchased the cement and water trough on June 4, the apparent day of the murder. He said Fortson hunted on the property where the body was found. He said she knew no one would be going near the body because it was on hunting grounds and it was not hunting season.
"She knew people weren't going to be back there," said Lavender.
There was also cement found in her truck matching the cement in the water trough. A piece of the bag of quick-dry cement was found in the trough, the same name brand purchased by Fortson at an Athens store on June 4. A neighbor saw Fortson at Benton's house on that date and said she heard a gunshot that night but didn't think much of it because gunshots aren't so unusual in rural areas - Camp questioned the credibility of the neighbor, wondering why she came forward with the news of the gunshot late in the investigation.
The prosecution also argued that Fortson forged a note from Benton to Alexander, which asked the victim's friend to look after his truck while he was gone. The DA said the former deputy stuck the note to Benton's truck with fingerprinting tape, which is used almost exclusively by law enforcement officers.
Green, black and khaki paint used on the water trough in an attempt to camouflage the entombed body was shown to be similar to paint found at Fortson's home and on her camouflaged mailbox.
After Tise sentenced Fortson, he asked the victim's side of the courtroom to exit first, then the defendant's side, keeping the two groups from mingling at such an emotional time.
Outside the courtroom after the trial, Bennett said he was happy with the verdict, saying he would have to move if Fortson was free.
"I feel justice has been done," said Bennett. "I can't say there will be closure other than knowing my safety is no longer in jeopardy."
He added that Benton was "the best friend I've ever had in my life."
Scott Benton said his brother embraced life and overcame tough times. He said he'd like people to remember his sibling's Herculean strength, how he attained recognition as one of the strongest men around, holding the state of Georgia bench press record in his weight class at 500 lbs.
"He worked his butt off to get it," said Benton.



ALL-AMERICAN GIRLS

Randee Bettis (R), 5, and Sydney Anderson, 6, were just two of those who rode in the parade as part of Joy Baptist Church's float entry during Colbert's Independence Day celebration. The parade was the largest one ever this year, lasting more than an hour.

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To read more about the local events in Madison County, including births, weddings, sports news and school news, see this week's Madison County Journal.


Comer man survives pellet gun shot to the head
A Comer man was reportedly shot in the head with a pellet pistol as he was standing in front of Springfield Baptist Church on Hwy. 72 in Comer last Saturday evening.
The man told police that he was standing in front of the church when a "light gold Isuzu Rodeo pulled up and someone said '........snitch.' They then pulled out a black handgun and opened fire, hitting the victim in the head."
According to the report, the victim sustained wounds above and behind the left ear, in the right clavicle and in the right anterior portion of the upper arm. The report also states that Madison County EMS workers called to the scene were advised that the weapon was a gas-powered pellet pistol.
The victim named a suspect, but when police made contact, the suspect's family told police he had not left his residence all day. A search of the suspect's vehicle failed to produce a weapon.
The incident remains under investigation.


Comer council denies rezoning request
The Comer City Council has refused a request to rezone a 30-acre tract on Willow Street from rural residential to residential. The request by K. Brahmbhatt would have allowed a more dense development on the site.
The rural residential zone requires at least two-acre lots. The R-1 zone cuts lot size to one-half acre or more.
Brahmbhatt said he wants to build homes in the $100,000 to $150,000 price range. He said that the homes will be built gradually, allowing time for infrastructure improvements to keep up.
A number of area residents opposed the action. Bill Usery was worried that wetlands and wildlife habitats would be damaged. William Burrough asked if the city has easements to widen and improve the street into the proposed subdivision. Johnny Bridges was concerned about increased traffic. Several others expressed similar concerns.
City public works director Gerald Kemp told the council that planned additions to the city's sewer system will push the water treatment facility to its limit. He was concerned that another subdivision would exceed the system's capacity.
Brahmbhatt will still be able to develop the tract, but he will have to keep lot sizes at two acres or larger. That reduces the number of homes he can build from up to 60 to 14 or less. He is not sure what he will do with the tract without the new zone.
For the rest of this story, see this week's Madison County Journal.