Supreme Court overturns murder conviction in Macon County case
MACON COUNTY, Georgia (Georgia Supreme Court Public Information Office) -The Supreme Court of Georgia has thrown out the conviction and death sentence of a man convicted in Macon County of the murder of a bank vice president.
In today’s unanimous decision, Justice Keith Blackwell writes that the evidence supports a lower court’s conclusion that Artemus Rick Walker was incompetent due to mental illness when he was tried and convicted of the 1999 murder of Lynwood Ray Gresham.
This is the second time the case has been before the high court. When Walker’s case first came up for appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his death sentence and murder conviction.
According to the evidence at his trial in Macon County, Walker devised a plan to rob Gresham, who was vice president of the bank located next door to the service station Walker owned. Several days before the crimes, Walker hired Gary Lee Griffin to work at his service station. He asked Griffin if he would help him “rob and kill” a “rich” man. On May 12, 1999, Walker borrowed an automobile and drove with Griffin to his hotel where they picked up Griffin’s bicycle before driving to Walker’s apartment. Walker gave Griffin black pants, a knife, and a stun gun. Both men changed into black clothing, then loaded their bicycles into the automobile.
Walker drove to a place near Gresham’s house where they parked, then rode their bicycles to Gresham’s house. Griffin waited at the side of the house as Walker went to the door and engaged Gresham in a conversation in the front yard. When Walker and Gresham began struggling, Walker told Griffin to use the stun gun on Gresham, but Griffin refused. Griffin also refused when Walker told him to stab Gresham with the knife. Griffin then gave the knife to Walker, who stabbed Gresham 12 times in the chest and back. Walker told Griffin to pick up things that had fallen during the struggle, which included Gresham’s keys and wallet. Walker dragged Gresham, who was still alive, to the side of the house and hid him in some bushes, where he was later found dead. Walker then told Griffin he had “one more to kill” and asked Griffin for Gresham’s keys. Walker tried to unlock the door to Gresham’s house, but Gresham’s wife, Roberta Gresham, locked a chain lock and foot lock on the door and called police. Her daughter yelled to Walker that she had a gun. Walker and Griffin then rode away on their bicycles. Griffin was arrested nearby after he crashed his bicycle. Walker was arrested a few hours later after he was discovered in the woods nearby. The victim’s blood was on Walker’s clothes, and he had the victim’s keys.
In 2002, a Macon County jury convicted Walker of malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault, attempted burglary and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to death plus a life term and 35 years in prison. In 2007, when the case came up for direct appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld Walker’s convictions and sentence. In August 2009, Walker’s attorney filed a petition for a “Writ of Habeas Corpus.” Habeas corpus is a civil proceeding that allows already convicted prisoners to challenge their convictions on constitutional grounds in the county where they’re incarcerated. They generally file the action against the prison warden, who in this case was Carl Humphrey. Following a hearing, the habeas court in Butts County, where death row is located, ruled in Walker’s favor and granted him a writ of habeas corpus, finding that Walker was denied his constitutional right to due process by being tried while incompetent, rendering him unable to assist in his own defense. It also concluded that Walker’s trial counsel had been ineffective in violation of Walker’s constitutional right to effective counsel for failing to pursue the issue of his competence and failing to present mitigating evidence regarding his mental health. The State appealed the habeas court’s decision to the Georgia Supreme Court while in a cross-appeal, Walker appealed the habeas court’s denial of his other claims for relief.
“Given the standard of review, we cannot say that the habeas court clearly erred when it found that Walker was incompetent at the time of his trial,” today’s opinion says. “For this reason, we must affirm the grant of the writ and the vacating of Walker’s convictions and sentences. The State may, of course, retry Walker, but only if he is competent at the time of retrial.” (While Walker’s convictions and sentence have been thrown out, the charges against him remain intact.)
In today’s 41-page opinion, the high court points out that a claim that an accused is incompetent must be brought up when the case first goes to trial. If it is not raised early in the court process, it is considered barred and cannot be brought up for the first time in habeas proceedings.
“The habeas court acknowledged that Walker never asserted in the court of conviction that he was incompetent to stand trial, but it found adequate cause and prejudice to overcome the procedural default,” the opinion says. In this case, the habeas court found that Walker’s attorneys for both his trial and direct appeal rendered “ineffective assistance of counsel,” meaning their performance was deficient and had it not been for their deficiencies, there is “a reasonable probability” that the trial would have had a different outcome. The habeas court found that Walker’s attorneys were ineffective because they “unreasonably failed to more thoroughly investigate his mental health, and a more thorough investigation, the habeas court found, would have supplied evidence that Walker was not competent to stand trial,” the opinion says. The habeas judge found, through testimony and other evidence, that Walker’s attorneys were concerned about his mental health and procured funds and made arrangements for Walker to be examined by Dr. Donald Meck, a psychologist. But when Walker refused to be examined, the attorneys abandoned their efforts to have his mental health evaluated without consulting with the psychologist about possible alternatives to a personal examination.
At the habeas hearing, substantial evidence was presented that showed Walker was mentally incompetent at the time of trial. According to a number of witnesses, including his mother, brother and sister, in his late teens, Walker slipped into increasingly psychotic-like behavior. He became obsessed with religion, would fast for 40 days at a time, slipping notes under the door to signal when he needed honey, milk or water, which is all he consumed. His brother said Walker had grand plans for founding his own “big ministry” named “King of Kings,” and he began wearing a robe to church and carrying a tall wooden staff. One woman who went to his church said Walker grew from being “kind of like the golden child” into an angry, threatening, strange man who stalked her and told her she had been appointed by God to be his wife. A church pastor, who had been Walker’s childhood friend, described him as a once “dynamic” youth preacher when he was 16 or 17 who changed over time and began to give sermons people “just didn’t understand.” His decline into mental illness in his late teens was confirmed by testimony of the bishop of Walker’s church who said that one night during a service, Walker asked the organist to stop playing so he could address the congregation. “Artemus then announced that he learned, directly from God, that I was a false pro[phet] and that my wife was the Witch of Hindu,” the bishop testified. “He went on to say that God told him that he was supposed to take over control of my church. Artemus’ behavior was very bizarre and we escorted him out….” Other witnesses provided information about Walker’s mental state shortly before the murder.
Based on the testimony and evidence presented at the habeas hearing, Dr. Meck gave his opinion that Walker had been essentially free of mental illness until he was 18 or 19, then began suffering from delusional kinds of psychotic behavior. Meck concluded Walker likely had not been competent to stand trial.
“Dr. Meck acknowledged…that he was unable to determine, without conducting a clinical interview with Walker, how Walker’s mental condition might have related directly to his crimes,” today’s opinion says. “But Dr. Meck was clear that Walker’s mental condition affected his ability to participate meaningfully in his defense.”
“If Dr. Meck had so testified at a competence trial, we can find no error in the conclusion of the habeas court that a reasonable probability exists that Walker would have been found incompetent to stand trial,” the opinion says. “Accordingly, Walker has carried his heavy burden to show that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel with respect to competence, and by carrying that burden, he has shown sufficient cause and prejudice to overcome the procedural default of his claim that he was tried while he was incompetent.”
In affirming Walker’s writ of habeas corpus, the high court finds “the cross appeal is moot and we dismiss it.”
SOURCE: Georgia Supreme Court Public Information Office