Juror ‘no-shows’ could delay racially-charged murder trial

No-show jurors may delay the start of a murder trial in Spalding County for what investigators say was a racially motivated murder in 1983.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin Monday morning, but Judge W. Fletcher Sams said he was shocked by the number of jurors who failed to answer a summons for jury duty.

The court was hoping to draw from a pool of 275 to 300 people for the highly publicized trial of Frank Gebhardt, the first of two men to be tried for the 1983 murder of Timothy Coggins. But only 127 of 325 summoned potential jurors showed up at the Spalding courthouse, and the judge said that could prolong jury selection into next week.

The judge is hoping to recruit some potential jurors from another trial just starting in the same courthouse. It’s also possible deputies may be sent out to round up some of the scofflaws who ignored their summons.

Gebhardt and his brother-in-law, William Moore Sr., allegedly bragged about killing Coggins, even arguing over which of them deserved the most credit for the 23-year-old’s death, prosecutors said at a hearing last November. The two men were initially to be tried together, but the defense was able to sever the charges.

» IN-DEPTH: ‘I’ve kept this for 34 years and now it’s time’ — How police say a cold case was solved

Gebhardt goes first. With physical evidence lacking, prosecutors are expected to use his own words against him. According to investigators, Gebhardt told a girlfriend she better be careful or she might “wind up like that (racial epithet) in the ditch.”

Another witness, a 10-year-old boy at the time, told police in 1983 he overheard Gebhardt say Coggins was targeted because he had been “messing around with his old lady.” Another said they believed Coggins and the two men were involved in a gun deal gone bad.

Frankie Gebhardt smiles as his lawyer, Larkin Lee, cross-examines a GBI investigator during a preliminary hearing in a Spalding County courtroom on November 30, 2017. 

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But race was unquestionably a factor, GBI special agent Jared Coleman testified at a pre-trial hearing for the two suspects.

“They were proud of what they had done,” said Coleman, who works with the GBI’s cold case unit. “They felt like they were protecting the white race from black people.”

» RELATED: Suspects bragged about dragging black man behind truck

The case was revived in March after a crucial tip from a witness that “filled in the gaps,” Spalding Sheriff Darrell Dix told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It was information from someone who knows exactly what they were talking about,” he said.

The tips began pouring in after that. From March to early October, investigators from Spalding and the GBI interviewed between 60 and 70 people.

Bill Moore Sr. and his lawyer, Harry Charles, right, listen during a preliminary hearing in a Spalding County courtroom on November 30, 2017. Moore and Frankie Gebhardt are accused of killing Timothy Coggins in 1983. Authorities say the killing was racially motivated. 

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The two suspects — who at the time of the crime in 1983 worked as laborers in the local pulpwood mills — were spotted by multiple witnesses talking to Coggins outside a gas station that was just across the street from People’s Choice. They were later observed driving away in Gebhardt’s gold Mercury Comet.

» PHOTOS: A look at Georgia’s cold case files

But otherwise, there is little to connect Gebhardt and Moore to the crimes. Gebhardt’s attorney, Larkin Lee, has noted the lack of any DNA evidence, even though Coggins was stabbed repeatedly.

Gebhardt allegedly told a witness that he disposed of the knife down a well on his property. Coleman said authorities didn’t excavate the well because it would compromise Gebhardt’s home. And the chain used to drag Coggins back and forth up to seven times under the power lines off U.S. 19 also was never found.

The trial is expected to last two to three weeks. Moore’s trial date has yet to be set.