Macon man acquitted in 2010 knife slaying, leaves court a free man

The verdict was in.

It had taken jurors less than half an hour to decide -- maybe less. Accused killer David Allen Stewart was not guilty of murder.

But Stewart didn’t know it yet. No one did.

As bailiffs scurried at lunch hour Friday to round up prosecutors and others for the verdict’s reading, Stewart made himself presentable.

The 40-year-old handyman had been in jail the past two years awaiting trial.

He tucked an open-collared gray shirt into his baggy slate khakis.

Jurors in his three-day trial for the fatal knifing of a Lizella man named Tony Lord in 2010 had left Judge Howard Simms’ courtroom at 11:48 a.m. to deliberate.

Now it was barely a quarter past noon.

At the defense table one of Stewart’s two lawyers, Travis Griffin, opened a tin of Altoid mints. Stewart popped one in his mouth and reclined in a wooden chair.

Across the courtroom by the jury box sat three glasses of tannish water. They had been a prop for the defense. The stained liquid, metaphorically at least, was the key to Stewart’s acquittal.

An hour or two earlier in his closing argument, Franklin J. Hogue, Stewart’s other attorney, employed an admittedly schticky flourish.

One by one, Hogue sat three glasses of clear water on an oak railing in front of the jurors.

The state’s case, he argued, hinged on the credibility of three people, two of them purported eyewitnesses who’d told authorities they had gone with Stewart to Lord’s parents’ house the night Lord was stabbed in the heart. One of the eyewitnesses said Stewart told her in their car afterward that he’d stabbed Lord. Another person in the car, though, testified he hadn’t heard that.

The defense argued that a third person, the 39-year-old victim’s son, Ryan Lord, gave varying accounts of who might have killed his father.

“Too many different versions from too many different people,” Hogue said.

“Each witness gives testimony and it’s like offering you a clear, cool glass of water. They’re asking you to drink it, take it in, accept it. ... But now each witness has been shown by cross-examination and other means to have made prior statements that are different, that are contradictory, that are not true.”

Hogue picked up a foam coffee cup with brown liquid inside and stood over the water glasses, addressing the jury.

As he spoke, he trickled dark fluid into each glass.

“And so each time a person does that, tells a lie,” he said, pouring, “and leaves something out ... it’s like adding a little ditch water to that cool glass of water. And it all gets mixed in there, and now it’s full of sewage water. And they want you to drink it.”

The dark liquid wasn’t ditch water. It was black coffee. But it seemed an appropriate concoction for a case that leaned on the testimony and statements of characters with checkered pasts.

One key prosecution witness had told a buddy that his 30 years of probation would disappear after his testimony sank Stewart.

Prosecutor John Regan, in his closing, referred to “this fog” the defense was serving up. He implored jurors not to “fall into the rabbit hole laid out by the defense.”

It was a problematic case for the state. Among other hurdles, no murder weapon was found and no physical evidence placed Stewart at the scene.

The case went cold for about two years until acquaintances of Stewart’s -- some reluctantly -- implicated him in 2012.

Prosecutors said Stewart had gone to a house on Altama Place, below U.S. 80 in Lizella, looking for Tony Lord’s son, Ryan. Stewart, according to witnesses, had been ripped off by the younger Lord in a drug deal. The younger Lord was also dating Stewart’s teenage daughter, turning her on to drugs.

It was Tony Lord, though, who answered the door that March night in 2010, when whoever came calling with a knife, plunged it into his chest and got away.

On Friday in court, after the jury filed in, Judge Simms said, “Mr. Stewart, stand up.”

Stewart rose.

His lawyers stood with him and Simms read three not-guilty verdicts, one for each count against Stewart -- malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault.

Stewart showed little emotion, but inside, as he later put it, he was “just ecstatic ... happy.”

In the courtroom behind him, his mother, Linda Stewart, covered her mouth with her hands, bowed her head and sobbed. Stewart glanced back, caught her gaze and smiled.

When Simms told him he was free to leave, Stewart headed for the exit.

But it was the wrong one. It was the side door prisoners go through to be shackled and carted back to jail -- the route Stewart was used to taking.

Hogue redirected his client.

“No, David,” he said, motioning to the courtroom’s main entrance, “you’re free.”

Stewart, his crying mother on his arm, marched that way and was gone.

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.