ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a murder indictment against a man accused of killing a couple who answered his Craigslist ad because some jurors in the case were not selected randomly.
Ronnie Adrian “Jay” Towns was indicted on charges including murder in the January 2015 killings of Elrey “Bud” Runion and his wife, June. Prosecutors allege Towns lured the couple to rural McRae, about 80 miles southeast of Macon, from their home in Marietta, an Atlanta suburb, promising a replica of a 1966 Mustang convertible after they connected through the online ad.
Investigators said at the time that the bodies were found that there was no evidence that Towns owned the kind of car Bud Runion was seeking.
Towns was indicted on charges including malice murder, felony murder and armed robbery. Prosecutors had announced they would seek the death penalty.
Two years after the indictment was obtained, Towns’ lawyer filed a motion to dismiss it, arguing some of the grand jurors hadn’t been selected randomly as required by law.
The trial court dismissed the indictment, and the state appealed. A divided high court upheld the dismissal.
Oconee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tim Vaughn was in court Monday morning. But he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time of oral arguments in the case that he would seek a new indictment if the dismissal was upheld.
Fifty prospective jurors were summoned in March 2015 to serve on the grand jury, but fewer than 16 appeared on time and ready to serve, the opinion says. Sixteen jurors are needed for a grand jury, so the presiding judge told the sheriff to try to find the jurors who had failed to appear. The judge also instructed the court clerk to supplement the number of prospective grand jurors with people who had been summoned to serve on a trial jury.
The clerk and her deputy examined the list of 150 prospective jurors who had been summoned to appear the next day to serve as trial jurors, the opinion says. Ultimately, two of those jurors ended up serving on the grand jury that indicted Towns.
The clerk testified at a hearing last year that she based her selections on her assessment on whether she already had information needed to quickly contact the prospective jurors and whether they would be able to report immediately.
Though the people summoned for service as trial jurors were selected at random from the master jury list, the clerk’s selection of two jurors was based on her personal knowledge of their circumstances and her ability to contact them, which means the selections weren’t random as the law requires, Justice Keith Blackwell wrote in the majority opinion.
“A grand jury is randomly selected only to the extent that all of its members were randomly selected,” Blackwell wrote. “Even an occasional, limited, and well-intentioned violation of the randomness requirement in the statute governing the summoning of additional grand jurors undercuts a key feature of the modern scheme for selecting juries.”
Justice John Ellington, in a dissent joined by Justice Michael Boggs, wrote that he agrees that the two grand jurors were not chosen at random “as that word is defined in the dictionary.” But he said that by using her educated guesses about the potential jurors to call people who would be likely to come quickly so the grand jury could get to work, the clerk “substantially complied with the law.”
“Dismissing the indictment based on this irregularity troubles me,” Ellington wrote, adding that dismissal of an indictment is an “extreme sanction” that should be used sparingly to remedy unlawful government conduct.
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