Capital murder case
dropped vs. trooper
After 15 years on death row, George Martin freed because of prosecutors' misconduct
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
A Mobile judge, citing the misconduct of prosecutors, recently dismissed capital murder charges against a former state trooper who spent 15 years in solitary confinement on death row in the burning alive death of his wife in 1995.
Mobile County Circuit Judge
Robert Smith last year
George Martin's release on
bail pending a new trial.
The state will seek to
overturn Smith's order and
retry Martin. However,
other Smith rulings
favorable to Martin have
been upheld on appeal.
The badly burned body of Hammoleketh Martin was found inside her Ford Escort along Willis Road in Tillman's Corner Oct. 8, 1995. Investigators concluded that she had been burned alive.
Detectives quickly suspected the financially struggling Martin, now 58, who had steadily increased the life insurance on his wife until it reached $380,000 at the time of her death.
Smith found though that prosecutors in the office of the Alabama Attorney General office had willfully withheld potentially exculpatory evidence that Martin's lawyers could have used to cast doubt on the state's case.
The state's prosecutors in the Martin case were Gerri Grant, Don Valeska and Will Dill, all assistants in the office of the Alabama Attorney General.
After the Mobile County District Attorney did not undertake the prosecution of Martin, the office of the Alabama Attorney General took over the case and obtained an indictment in the summer of 1999, about four years after Mrs. Martin's death.
In 2000, a jury found Martin guilty and recommended a sentence of life in prison. However, trial Judge Ferrill D. McRae, now deceased, overrode jurors and ordered that Martin be put to death.
According to Smith, the state's delaying tactics in providing Martin's defense with materials to which it was entitled have now made it impossible for Martin to receive a fair trial.
"... time has become the enemy of memory and life," Smith ruled. "... the prejudice suffered by Martin cannot be corrected by a new trial."
The dismissal of the case was especially warranted, according to Smith, because the prosecutors' violations were "willful."
Martin's is not "a cold case," Smith noted, "but a case that is riddled with impropriety and missteps brought about during the prosecution of the case, resulting in a death sentence and 15 years on death row."
Among the elements of the state's case that featured improprieties and/or missteps included:
- -- The testimony of the "snitch" Clifford Davis.
Davis now claims, after several strokes, to have no memory of "so called admissions and confession" to him by Martin. The judge, perhaps sardonically, points out that Martin's purported confession to Davis occurred while the latter was a misdemeanor prisoner assigned to a cell block wedge housing Martin and other capital murder defendants.
- The handling of the testimony of witness James Taylor who directly stated to (city of Mobile Police) Major (Tommy) Calhoun" that he saw a black trooper at the scene who "filled up the car." Martin in fact is a very small man and Calhoun's notes containing Taylor's statement were not delivered to the defense.
Smith's ruling observes that Calhoun was present at the trial while prosecutors argued that Taylor's reference to seeing a black state trooper near the scene could lead jurors to infer that it was Martin.
The major knew that Taylor, presented with a photo spread, had in fact identified a different state trooper as looking like the one he saw even though the spread included Martin's photo. Yet Calhoun testified at a previous hearing that he felt no obligation to intervene, correct or suggest that Taylor had picked trooper Graylon Williams from the photo spread and not Martin.
Mrs. Martin's sister, Terry Jean Jackson, had told an investigator that she saw a gas can in Mrs. Martin's hatchback car just weeks before the incident. Nevertheless, in his closing argument, Valeska stated that there was no gas can, that it was merely a creation.
"If the Martin case is not one which is appropriate for dismissal, there may never be one," wrote Smith.
Mobile attorneys Dennis Knizley and Ken Nixon handled Martin's defense in the original trial in 2000. Subsequently, Los Angeles attorney John Sharer took over Martin's appeal and continues to represent him.
In his order, Smith noted that the grounds for dismissal should not be viewed as some technicality nor should it be seen as Martin's escaping justice.
"This is not a windfall to ... Martin, who has served 15 years in solitary confinement on death row, and is certainly not a procedural device to allow Martin to escape justice," the judge wrote. "This Court has looked at both the need to undo prejudice resulting from multiple (prosecutorial) violations and the appropriate deterrent value of the sanction in this case. While this is a rare sanction, it is the proper sanction in this case ..."