The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that Paul Hamilton, the former Barrow County magistrate judge convicted last year for the 2015 murder of his nephew, is indeed entitled to a new trial.
In a decision released Tuesday, Sept. 3, the court’s unanimous ruling upholds the decision by former Piedmont Judicial Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge David Motes in October 2018 — days before his retirement from the bench — to reverse the jury’s guilty verdict and order a new trial.
Hamilton, now 78, was convicted Oct. 5, 2018 on a charge of felony murder and three counts of aggravated assault in the death of Brandon Lay, 32, of Statham. On Oct. 25, Motes imposed a mandatory life sentence, but then immediately reversed the conviction on the grounds that he had erred in his instructions to the jury and that he did not believe the evidence presented during the week-long trial supported a conviction, saying a new trial would be “consistent with the principles of equity and justice.”
In the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Sarah Warren quoted state statutes that “Even when the evidence is legally sufficient to sustain a conviction, a trial judge may grant a new trial if the verdict of the jury is ‘contrary to…the principles of justice and equity,’ or if the verdict is ‘decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence.’”
PREVIOUS INCIDENT AND DEATH OF LAY
The events of Oct. 17, 2015 began early in the morning when Lay and his girlfriend, Teddi Taylor, drove a U-Haul to an abandoned mobile home on property owned by Hamilton on Charlie Hall Road in Hoschton to take some household items, including blankets, towels and a dresser.
Lay had grown up in the home with Hamilton and his wife, who was Lay’s aunt, but had left the home when he was a teenager after he and Hamilton had a falling out. The two did not maintain a contact. Lay was living with Taylor at the time of his death, had recently been released from prison and was performing odd jobs to earn money, according to the ruling’s narrative.
Shortly after they arrived, around 7 a.m. three men Hamilton had given permission to hunt on the property — James Wilson, Jacob Wilson and John Johnson — also arrived and parked behind the U-Haul.
The stories from the parties at trial about what happened next differed. Taylor testified that Lay was locking the home up before leaving when “a truck come flying in the driveway” and that the men yelled at them to leave, saying they would call 911. She said she tried to explain to them they weren’t stealing but that the men started shooting at her and that Lay backed up the U-Haul, ramming the truck several times, in order for them to escape.
The men disputed that account and said they were going to call 911 and the U-Haul backed up “full throttle.” They said they fired shots at the U-Haul’s tires to try to get it to stop. One of the men fired a shot into the ground to try to get it to stop.
The couple drove off in the direction of Old Hog Mountain Road, and the belongings fell out onto the road. Lay took the U-Haul near the home of an acquaintance, Judy Hewatt, where he parked it and they walked to her home.
After deputies responded to the scene, Hamilton told them, “If I catch someone else on my property, you’ll need to call the coroner.”
Hewatt testified that later that morning she drove Lay and Taylor in her pickup truck to the intersection of Charlie Hall and Old Hog Mountain roads, where the items had fallen out, and they began picking them up. One of the hunters’ wives spotted them and alerted Hamilton.
Hamilton drove to the intersection and parked his car in front of Hewatt’s truck. After a brief altercation, he shot Lay, striking him in the head and killing him.
Taylor testified that when Hamilton approached the truck carrying a handgun, Lay screamed, “He’s going to kill us,” and pushed Taylor back in her seat. She said Hamilton fired, hitting Lay in the head, and said that he had “killed that mother******.”
Hamilton said that he had planned to temporarily detain the three until law enforcement arrived. He said he reached his left arm into the truck to try to grab the keys out of the ignition, but that Lay grabbed his arm and that when he put his right arm in to free his left arm, the gun went off.
“And that’s when I shot him deader than s***,” Hamilton told deputies at the scene.
Taylor testified that she did not remember if the gun was inside or outside the vehicle and that neither she nor Lay touched Hamilton before the shot was fired. Photographs admitted into evidence showed that he had an abrasion on his left arm several inches above his wrist.
James Wilson disputed Hewatt’s account that he and Jacob Wilson had pointed out Taylor to Hamilton and that they had also approached the truck. Jacob Wilson testified that after the shooting, the women ran from the vehicle and Hamilton walked back to his car, saying, “I told you not to reach for my gun.”
CONVICTION AND REVERSAL
The jury found Hamilton not guilty of malice murder, but convicted him on felony murder and the three counts of aggravated assault.
After imposing the life sentence, Motes immediately made his own motion for a new trial and granted it. Hamilton was released on bond and required to wear an ankle monitor and remain within 80 miles of his home.
Motes said he believed he had committed errors in how he charged jurors to initially consider Hamilton’s alleged intent in the incident and for denying motions from the prosecution and defense to re-charge the jurors, as well as a subsequent mistrial motion from the prosecution.
Motes said he was troubled by Taylor’s and Hewatt’s testimony and questioned their credibility. On cross-examination, Taylor admitted that, in her initial statement to police, she did not tell the interviewing officer about going to the mobile home earlier in the morning or about the incident. She also admitted that she and Lay had been up most of the night before the incident and had used methamphetamine with syringes that were later found on Hamilton’s property.
“I cannot end my career with what I believe to be an injustice,” Motes said at the hearing, saying that he was exercising his discretion as the 13th juror.
District Attorney Brad Smith argued before the Supreme Court in May that Motes’ error in the malice murder charge was irrelevant to the felony murder charge and that, by engaging in aggravated assault, Hamilton was responsible for Lay’s death. Smith compared the situation to a bank robber’s gun going off inadvertently. Smith also accused Motes of using “imaginary evidence” to attack Taylor’s credibility, saying that Taylor was never asked whether the methamphetamine use the previous night would have affected her perception of the events, as Motes recalled her admitting it would.
Kyle Winchester, an attorney for Hamilton, argued to the court that Hamilton was within his Second Amendment right to bear arms and had only drawn the weapon as an act of self-defense when he was pulled into the truck.
Warren wrote that in exercising discretion as the 13th juror, “the trial judge must consider some of the things that (he) cannot when assessing the legal sufficiency of the evidence, including any conflicts in the evidence, the credibility of witnesses, and the weight of the evidence. Although the discretion of a trial judge to award a new trial on the general grounds is not boundless — it is, after all, a discretion that ‘should be exercised with caution (and) invoked only in exceptional cases in which the evidence preponderates heavily against the verdict’ — it nevertheless is, generally speaking, a substantial discretion.”
“Having reviewed the entire record,” Warren continued, “and considering that the trial court was authorized, as the thirteenth juror, to discount Taylor’s and Hewatt’s testimony and to credit Hamilton’s story…we cannot say that the trial court’s conclusion was an abuse of its substantial discretion to grant Hamilton a new trial.”
The Barrow County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
When reached Tuesday, Winchester said the Supreme Court opinion “was correctly decided.”
“There was a plethora of evidence that Motes could have relied on to base his decision and exercise his discretion,” Winchester said. “After he discredited (Taylor’s and Hewatt’s) testimony, the only credible version of events was Mr. Hamilton’s.”
Winchester added that Motes’ other basis for a new trial — his error in jury instructions — was actually invited by the prosecution because it made the motion for a mistrial based on the omission of instructions on the intent element.
“Even assuming the state was able to prove the evidence demanded the verdict, the result would have been the same,” Winchester said. “It’s tough to win an appeal when you got exactly what you wanted. The only reason they’re against that now is they got the verdict they wanted and it was reversed.”
A timetable for a new trial is not yet known.