Justice Delayed or Denied: The Columbus Stocking Stranglings

By Andrew Wittenberg  - bio | email | Twitter

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - There are few stories, cases or events that stir emotion in us anymore.

In the days of instant gratification, e-mail, internet, smart phones --- very little makes us stop and pause.

But there is a series of events that happened 32 years ago that still grips the city of Columbus, its residents and former resident, Carlton Gary.

WTVM has investigated this for the last four months, looking at every angle, even new angles.

Our question, has justice been delayed, or has justice been denied?

"All of us who are still living remember when, we didn't think nothing like this could happen in Columbus but it did."

Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington remembers --- seven women in Columbus, all murdered in their own homes.

Current Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren was a detective during the city's most horrific period.

"That was in 1977 and 1978, when the murders actually took place," Boren said.

The Columbus stocking stranglings brought a town to its knees.

Six years passed, but the investigation to find the killer never left the headlines.

In May 1984, a man once thought to be a ghost was arrested.

His name, Carlton Gary.

"You know, there was some relief, you know there were some people who had doubts as to whether we had the right individual or not, but for the biggest part, relief."

"People wanted to actually see him and be able to put a face with the crimes that had happened in Columbus," Boren said.

Gary was convicted in three of the seven cases, sentenced to death, and taken to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, where he remains today.

But in the 32 years since the murders and 23 years since the convictions, there have been doubts about Gary's guilt.

In 2006, British writer David Rose authored "The Big Eddy Club," a theory, that painted the Columbus judicial system as a backwards racist institution, eager to convict an innocent African-American.

Although many of his theories have been publicly criticized, it did spark debate.

Why, if there was physical evidence that could exonerate Gary, had it never been tested?

Then, there's Tim Wilson.

"It was the murder mystery of my lifetime, and then I read David Rose's book," Wilson said.

A Columbus native, who was a junior in high school when the murders occurred, Wilson now makes a living as an entertainer.

Three years ago, after "The Big Eddy Club" made a splash, he found a renewed interest in the case.

Last summer, he published a book of his own, called "Happy New Year, Ted."

In it, Wilson found what he calls overwhelming evidence that infamous serial killer Ted Bundy played a role in at least two of the stocking stranglings.

"Every time we tried to disprove ourselves, or throw a wrench in it, there wasn't any wrenches to it. The story just kept coming," Wilson said.

Well aware that most classify his book as a "shot in the dark," a "spaceship book," Wilson does have evidence.

The most compelling ---Ted Bundy's dental impressions. They appear to match those from the final strangling victim, Janet Cofer.

Now he does not claim Carlton Gary is necessarily innocent, only that there may have been two killers.

"In Columbus, Georgia, people are interested in Carlton Gary being punished for what he did. They don't like when someone brings in something from the outside that might jeopardize that."

"My book actually won't jeopardize that at all, because Carlton Gary was convicted in three cases and there are two other cases, that he is very well guilty," Wilson said.

Chief Boren, however, believes Gary is guilty, citing crime scene evidence and the lengthy preparation process before Gary's trial.

"It took us two years to prepare for the court trial. We did. We went from '84 to '86 and in '86 he was tried and of course was found guilty," Boren said.

There's also DNA evidence.

It was the single issue that led the Georgia State Supreme Court to grant Carlton Gary a stay of execution on December 16th, four hours before he was scheduled to die.

"This was our last alternative, and I admit it. It was our last alternative," lead defense counsel Jack Martin said on December 16th.

And while some have stated DNA testing was only been proposed as a "delay tactic" to prevent Gary's execution, WTVM uncovered documents dating back to 1994 that few have seen.

During a habeas corpus hearing, Judge Douglas Pullen testified that no original DNA evidence was kept after the investigation because it was considered a bio-hazard by the GBI.

Then in 2001, the DNA evidence inexplicably showed up in Columbus.

Current district attorney Julia Slater questions if the evidence had been around for eight years and if Gary is innocent, why the defense waited so long to pursue DNA testing?

"The DNA has been available, the defense has known about it since 2001, we feel like if they were going to ask for DNA testing, there's been eight years they could have done that," Slater said in December.

Many of the key players in this case cannot interview about the DNA because of the ongoing appeals process.

However, sources have told News Leader Nine the DNA is in suitable condition for testing.

Court documents indicate exactly what physical evidence exists.

The four main pieces are hair and semen from the Florence Schieble crime scene, more sperm found on Martha Thurmond's body, a sperm sample from Kathleen Woodruff's bed sheet and fingernail scrapings from Janet Cofer, believed to be from the murderer.

The test results may only complicate matters further.

If they are not conclusive, can Georgia's justice system sentence a man to death who is possibly innocent?

If they confirm Gary is innocent, the city of Columbus could be riddled with the fear that the stocking strangler still walks the streets --- and it would mean a man was wrongfully convicted 23 years ago.

©2010 WTVM. All rights reserved.