Warner Robins man seeks to come off Georgia’s death row

bpurser@macon.comNovember 10, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- Roger Collins of Warner Robins is seeking to come off Georgia’s death row.

Collins, 53, has spent the past 35 years under a death sentence at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Butts County for the 1977 rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl in a Houston County pecan orchard.

Recently, there has been movement in his case.

A watchdog group has appealed to the state Attorney General’s Office on his behalf to have his sentence commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

At issue is a 1991 order from a then-Butts County Superior Court judge remanding the case to Houston County Superior Court for a jury trial on the issue of “mental retardation.” Federal and state laws prohibit the execution of mentally disabled persons.

But the trial to determine whether Collins is mentally disabled never took place.

With more than 20 years having gone by, the nonprofit Watchdogs for Justice believes the continued delay in the trial has made it difficult, if not impossible, to locate and maintain the evidence and witnesses Collins would need at trial.

“Given the undue prejudice and hardship that will be impossible to overcome, Roger wants to petition the state and the court to rectify this delay by commuting his sentence to life with the possibility of parole,” Clara B. King, one of five criminal defense attorneys who comprise the watchdog group, wrote in a September letter to the state attorney general’s office.

In a telephone interview, King said Collins first contacted her group about sharing his life story to prevent young people from going down the same path. King has written a book about his life that is nearing publication.

King said the group believes in redemption, and Collins is not the same man he was at 18 when he entered prison.

“He wants to get out of prison and help young people not come to the place where he’s now,” King said.

The case

A Houston County jury convicted Collins in 1977 of bludgeoning teenager Deloris Luster to death with a car bumper jack after he and another man raped her at knife-point. William Durham, the boyfriend of Collins’ mother, was sentenced to life for the murder and rape. Collins maintained that it was Durham who actually killed Luster, and the sexual intercourse was consensual. A third man, Johnny Styles, who waited in the car after the rape while Luster was murdered, was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.

King argued in her letter that the jury never heard mitigating evidence about Collins’ abusive childhood, mental issues and living on his own since age 11. As his common-law stepfather, Durham had considerable sway over Collins, she said.

The state attorney general’s office contacted the Houston County district attorney’s office after receiving King’s letter. The state has no jurisdiction over the remand issue, said Lauren Kane, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office. Houston County District Attorney George Hartwig assigned the case to Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel P. Bibler.

Bibler met Nov. 2 with Amy Vosburg-Casey, an attorney for the Georgia Resource Center, a nonprofit law group that Bibler said is representing Collins. Bibler said the case is now under review to determine what needs to be done.

He acknowledged having a jury trial to determine whether Collins is mentally disabled or working the matter out apart from a trial with the defense are both plausible outcomes.

If it’s determined Collins is mentally disabled, then he could not be executed, and his sentence would be modified to a life sentence, Bib­ler said. However, Bibler said he did not know if life with the possibility of parole was an option.

Vosburg-Casey did not return phone calls for comment

When looking at the case, one of the issues is what documents are still available that may come into play in determining a mental disability. Both the prosecution and the defense would likely seek medical experts as well. A current assessment of Collins also would be likely.

Burt Baker, a supervising attorney with the Georgia Capital Conflict Office, may end up representing Collins should the mental disability go to trial. He was given a copy of the Butts County judge’s order as a courtesy by the Houston County District Attorney’s Office.

While he could not discuss the Collins case, Baker said he could speak in general about the death penalty in regard to the issue of mental disability.

In the 2002 Atkins versus Virginia case, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the execution of persons with mental disability, Baker said. How to determine whether an inmate had such a disability was left to the individual states.

Georgia requires the highest burden of proof in the country, in which a capital defense has to prove mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt, Baker said.

Unclear why case languished

It’s unclear from Houston County Superior Court records as to what happened to the Collins case in 1991 after then-Butts County Superior Court Judge Hal Craig found “sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue regarding his mental retardation.” Bibler said he did not know.

Senior Judge L.A. “Buster” McConnell Jr., who had dealings with the case in 1991 as a then full-time Houston County Superior Court judge, said he does not remember why the case languished.

When the March 18, 1991 remand order was received, McConnell wrote a letter to all the parties involved in the case inquiring about any potential time limits and asking the prosecution and defense to agree on a trial date.

“I do not want a situation to develop where this court could be embarrassed because of failure to resolve this issue within a period of limitations,” McConnell wrote in the March 25, 1991, letter. “I would appreciate everyone’s thoughts on this matter.”

Stephen B. Bright, one of Collins’ attorneys in 1991, wrote back in a April 2, 1991, letter that there is no statute of limitations. He also suggested waiting until a case then-pending the Georgia Supreme Court was decided to avoid litigating issues expected to be decided in that case.

Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote in an e-mail, that he couldn’t offer much insight on the case.

“I have not represented Roger Collins since January of 2007 when his representation was assumed by other lawyers,” Bright wrote. “I have not been in touch with anyone about his case since then, so I do not know the answers to your questions. I’m sorry that I can’t be more helpful.”

Houston County Superior Court Judge Edward D. Lukemire, who was the district attorney in 1991, could not be reached for comment.

Mary Beth Westmoreland, who retired this year as the state’s deputy attorney general, was a senior assistant attorney general in 1991, and in an April 3 letter to Lukemire, she also suggested waiting on the then-pending case before the state Supreme Court. She was not reached for comment. However, spokeswoman Kane stressed the attorney general’s office would only have jurisdiction on the case in regard to an appeal issue, she said.

Mark E. Olive, a Tallahassee, Fla., capital defense attorney who also represented Collins in 1991 when he worked for the Georgia Resource Center, could not be reached for comment. Olive is known for his litigation work in the landmark Atkins versus Virginia case.

King said she understood from Vosburg-Casey that Olive had rejoined the Collins defense team. King said her intention initially was to meet with Hartwig about the case. But she said she decided not to once she heard Olive was going to represent Collins.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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