Houston & Peach

Warner Robins man wins battle to leave death row

Roger Collins
Roger Collins

PERRY -- A Warner Robins man fighting to leave death row won that battle Wednesday.

Roger Collins, who was the second longest-serving inmate on Georgia’s death row in early 2015, was resentenced in Houston County Superior Court by Judge George Nunn to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The resentencing followed mental evaluations requested by both the prosecution and defense attorneys that found Collins suffers from mental retardation. The law prohibits the execution of mentally retarded people.

The option of a life sentence without parole was not an option for the court.

Collins, a former Warner Robins city sanitation worker, was under a death sentence for nearly 38 years. At least twice his execution was ordered but then stayed.

Collins was convicted and sentenced to death for the Aug. 6, 1977, rape and slaying of a 17-year-old girl in a pecan orchard near Kathleen. He was 18 then.

Collins was convicted of bludgeoning DeLores Luster with a car bumper jack after he and another man raped her at knifepoint. William Durham, who was dating Collins’ mother at the time, was sentenced to life for the murder and rape. A third man, Johnny Styles, who waited in the car after the rape while Luster was killed, was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Collins originally told Houston County sheriff’s investigators that he and Durham both struck Luster with the jack but later told authorities he confessed to that because Durham told him to, and he never struck her. He admitted to dropping the jack out of a moving car afterward and discarding her clothes in a convenience store dumpster, according to his statement included in the case file in Houston County Superior Court.

In 1991, a Butts County Superior Court judge remanded the case to Houston County Superior Court on the mental retardation issue after a forensic psychologist found that Collins had an IQ of 66. But a trial to determine whether Collins was mentally disabled never took place.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally retarded people but left up to each state how determinations of mental capacity are made. Georgia is the only state that requires the defense to prove mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard has stood up under appeal.

Collins’ case languished for more than 20 years until Decatur-based Watchdogs for Justice petitioned the Attorney General’s Office in September 2012 to intervene. The nonprofit group asked that the death penalty be vacated for a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

In January 2013, Houston County Chief Deputy Assistant District Attorney Dan Bibler wrote a letter to Nunn about the need to get the case moving and requested a new psychiatric evaluation of Collins. State attorneys who represent people charged in capital cases mounted a defense to prevent prosecutors from challenging Collins’ 1991 diagnosis of mental retardation and asked Nunn to vacate the death sentence for a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Nunn declined. The prosecution’s mental evaluation was completed in late July of this year.

“A diagnosis of mental retardation ... is based on significant deficits in intellectual and adaptive functioning, which are evident beginning in childhood or adolescence,” according to the evaluation performed for the prosecution, which was included in the court record.

Bibler said Wednesday that while Collins was convicted of a brutal murder, the prosecution has to abide by the law, which prohibits the execution of a person deemed mentally retarded.

“I have no misgivings about it,” Bibler said.

Amber Pittman, the lead capital defender representing Collins, could not be reached for comment.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559, or find her on Twitter@becpurser.