Fulton integrity unit exonerates first wrongly convicted defendant

Mario Stinchcomb, who was released from prison last week after 18 years behind bars, with his fiancée Nichole Briggins. (Family photo)
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Mario Stinchcomb, who was released from prison last week after 18 years behind bars, with his fiancée Nichole Briggins. (Family photo)

Mario Stinchcomb believed the truth would come out eventually. He just never thought it would take so long.

On April 14, after more than 18 years in prison, Stinchcomb walked out of custody a free man, the first person exonerated by the Fulton County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

“It’s a blessing,” Stinchcomb, 40, said in an interview. “I knew one day this would be over with. I just needed someone to look at my case.”

Since his release, Stinchcomb has reunited with his fiancée, Nichole Briggins, and members of his family.

“I am so happy to be out,” Stinchcomb said. “This experience has been a total nightmare. I never knew when I’d see my family again.”

At a 2004 trial, a jury found Stinchcomb guilty of felony murder for the Nov. 6, 2002, shooting death of Jakesha Young. Stinchcomb said that he and co-defendant Michael Woolfolk were acting in self-defense because Young was the first person to open fire.

The incident happened after Young got in an argument with Stinchcomb and then ran out of the second-story apartment to get her gun out of a car. Before her driver sped off, Young fired shots at Stinchcomb and Woolfolk, who both returned fire. The only bullet fired by Woolfolk before his gun jammed struck Young in the head, killing her.

After being convicted at trial, both Stinchcomb and Woolfolk were sentenced to life in prison.

But 14 years later, Stinchcomb’s lawyers found Jamario Ford, who was driving the car when Young was shot and killed. Ford did not testify at trial because Fulton prosecutors were unable to locate him.

In a sworn statement signed March 2, 2018, Ford said that when Young got her gun out of his car she fired once at the direction of the apartment’s upstairs porch. When Ford told Young he was leaving, she got in the car and fired another shot out of the window at someone on the porch, he said. Only after Ford sped away, did he hear another gunshot and realize Young had been hit, his affidavit said.

Stinchcomb’s lawyers filed an extraordinary motion for new trial based on Ford’s statement, but a judge dismissed it. In June 2020, however, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed that decision.

Ford’s statement “offered several facts that lend significant support to Stinchcomb’s claim of self-defense,” Justice Carla Wong McMillian wrote for a unanimous court.

With that in hand, Stinchcomb’s lawyers approached the Conviction Integrity Unit overseen by Aimee Maxwell, who once headed the Georgia Innocence Project. The Fulton DA’s office investigation culminated in an order signed last week by Superior Court Judge Shukura Millender granting Stinchcomb a new trial.

On Wednesday, during a virtual hearing, Millender signed an order dismissing the charges because Stinchcomb “acted in self-defense.” He walked out of prison that day.

“This case is another example of an innocent person having to wait a long time for justice,” said Stinchcomb’s lawyer Leigh Schrope of the Decatur firm Shein, Brandenburg and Schrope. “We are so happy that Mr. Stinchcomb has been exonerated and that he has been reunited with his loving family.”

Attorney Leigh Schrope. (Shein, Brandenburg & Schrope)
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Attorney Leigh Schrope. (Shein, Brandenburg & Schrope)

Woolfolk, the co-defendant, remains in prison but his lawyer is trying to get a similar result, Schrope said.

Both Stinchcomb and Schrope praised DA Fani Willis and the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, founded in 2019. The unit is helping Stinchcomb with his transition back to society by assisting him to get a new driver’s license.

“They have been the greatest,” Stinchcomb said. “Ms. Willis gave me a chance when she looked into it. She saw we were telling the truth.”

Stinchcomb has his sights set on getting a commercial driver’s license so he can drive 18-wheelers across the country, a striking difference from being confined in a prison cell for 18-plus years.

So far, it’s been quite an adjustment, he said. “I’ve been gone for so long a lot of things sure have changed.”