A man convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison will get a new trial under a decision Monday by the Georgia Supreme Court.
In 2006, a Taylor County jury found Courtney Sales guilty of murder and armed robbery in the shooting death of Jamal Cooper.
In Monday’s decision, though, the state’s high court reversed the judgment based on the trial judge’s statement during jury selection that the crime “happened in Taylor County.”
With that statement, the trial judge “expressed or intimated the court’s opinion as to a disputed issue of fact” and therefore violated Georgia law, the opinion said. “Accordingly, appellant must be granted a new trial.”
In December 2005, Sales and Cooper drove from New Jersey to Americus, in Sumter County, to buy cheap firearms, according to a summary of the case. Sales arranged through an acquaintance to purchase the guns from someone named “Sham.” On Dec. 17, 2005, Sales, Cooper, the acquaintance and three of the acquaintance’s cousins went to a meeting place on a dirt road, but “Sham” never arrived.
Later that night, police found Sales lying on the ground at a gas station. He was shot multiple times. Sales told police he was involved in a transaction that went wrong, and his friend, Cooper, was also shot.
Based on Sales’ account, there was some confusion about which county Cooper’s body could be found in. Later, police found the body on a dirt road in south Taylor County.
Police eventually learned through witnesses that Sales made the trip from New Jersey to rob Cooper, believing that Cooper previously ripped him off in another transaction.
Police also learned Sales was the one who shot Cooper in the back of the head, then had another member from the group shoot him to make it look as if he were the victim. Eventually, the other individuals involved entered into plea deals and testified against Sales at trial.
Following a November 2006 trial, the jury found Sales guilty of murder, armed robbery and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. He was sentenced to life plus five years in prison. Sales filed a motion requesting a new trial challenging the sufficiency of the evidence against him and arguing the trial judge violated state law by making three improper comments during the trial. The trial judge denied his motion, and Sales then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
In Monday’s opinion, the high court concluded that “the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crime for which he was convicted.”
However, by stating that the crime was committed in Taylor County when that was a disputed fact, the judge violated the law, the high court concluded.