The trial, 35 years in the making, concluded in less than four days, half the time expected. The state rested its case against Franklin Gebhardt, charged in the gruesome killing of a young black man, after two full days, one half day and, finally, one quarter of a day of testimony. The defense was done after two witnesses who spent a collective 15 minutes on the stand.
Major questions remained unanswered. By both sides. But then, in closing arguments that were comprehensive and pointed, clarity suddenly emerged. From both sides. Which, in the end, could make the task facing the 12 jurors — eight women and four men, including two African-Americans — even more challenging.
For seemingly every reasonable doubt quashed by prosecutors, a new one was raised by the defense about who killed Timothy Coggins, stabbed some 30 times, then connected by a chain to a pickup truck and dragged under the power lines off a rural Spalding County road, where his hardly recognizable body was found.
THE TRIAL SO FAR
Jury selection: Potential jurors unfamiliar with notorious Spalding murder
There probably wouldn’t have been a trial without Christopher Vaughn, the convicted child molester whose 2015 interview with the GBI, his fourth since 2005, persuaded Special Agent Jared Coleman to reopen the cold case. In that final interview, Vaughn’s memory sharpened, defense co-counsel Larkin Lee pointed out in his closing argument.
Suddenly Vaughn remembered seeing Coggins get into a car with Gebhardt, Gebhardt’s girlfriend at the time, now deceased, and the defendant’s brother in-law and alleged accomplice William Moore Sr. — scheduled to go to trial for the same killing in October — on the night the victim was last seen alive.
It was also the first time Vaughn recalled seeing Coggins arguing with the men charged in his death, convenient for a man facing an additional 27 years in prison, Lee said.
In a taped interview played for jurors last week, Vaughn is heard asking whether his consecutive sentences can be made concurrent, effectively cutting his incarceration in half. Coleman made no guarantees but did offer a small carrot: The district attorney would not consider any possible rewards until after the trial is completed.
Former GBI Special Agent Samuel Beaty, who interviewed Vaughn in 2008, testified Monday that he was largely unmoved by his story and unable to corroborate any of his accusations.
Vaughn, Lee said, figured he had to juice up his account if he’s ever going to get his sentence reduced.
“He’s got all kinds of good details now,” Lee said. “Because y’all know how much you remember from when you were 10 years old (Vaughn’s age in 1983). “
“Now he saw them. And they were arguing. And they were leaving in a car,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s reasonable doubt. They’re trying to convict (Gebhardt) of murder because of this.”
But while Vaughn’s account changed, everything he said Gebhardt told him was thrown down his well — which had not yet been dredged — turned up, Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Benjamin Coker said. A knife. Particular items of clothing worn by Coggins — a T-shirt and tennis shoe.
The shoe, a size 10, same as worn by Coggins. An Adidas, not the kind of shoe worn by a “pulpwooder” (Gebhardt’s vocation, cutting down trees), Coker said. A red argyle sock, also not associated with blue-collar garb but matching the description provided by the victim’s sister.
With significant physical evidence collected from the crime scene missing, prosecutors have been forced to rely on the evidence, all circumstantial, pulled from a well that housed three decades of debris. And the veracity of seven men, six of whom are incarcerated, who say they heard Gebhardt confess to the killing.
“You may not like them. You may not like what they did in their past,” Coker said. “But you can believe them. We can’t pick our witnesses. (Gebhardt) already did.”
To the defense, they were opportunists who conspired against Gebhardt out of self-preservation.
“Everyone at Spalding County jail has decided this was their ticket out,” Lee said. “Guards were talking as well. It’s no wonder where this was coming from.”
And what of their varying accounts? Three of the witnesses said Gebhardt told them he cut off Coggins’ penis and stuffed it in the victim’s mouth, information not supported by any evidence, Lee said.
Coker reminded them of the witness who testified Gebhardt told them he planned on telling different people different accounts in order to make investigators look foolish.
That witness, Patrick Douglas, is a member of Aryan Nation snitching on Gebhardt, a man he referred to as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A neo-Nazi snitching on a white supremacist? Just one of many seeming contradictions introduced during the trial.
“It was trash that came out of the well” and trash that emerged from the witnesses’ mouths, Lee said.
Lee, conceding his client is a mean-spirited racist, said that doesn’t mean Gebhardt is a killer.
“This is a criminal trial where the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “I know that it’s hard … but that is your job.
“You can come up with about 10 or 15 reasons for reasonable doubt,” Lee continued. “Once you do that, you have to find Mr. Gebhardt not guilty on all these charges.”
Coker asked jurors to atone for the 1983 investigation that should’ve brought justice but instead brought shame. It was closed in two months, and a former GBI agent testified Monday that Spalding deputies shared virtually no evidence they obtained in 1983.
Many of the witnesses didn’t know each other; some weren’t even born when the killing occurred, Coker said. But their stories were consistent, that Gephardt killed Coggins and was proud of it.
“He has shown his true colors,” Coker said. “The hatred, the anger, the evil that spewed from his mouth. Words aren’t worth (expletive) to Frankie Gebhardt, but his own words have condemned him. The hatred, the anger, the evil, he wears them as a badge of honor.”
Jury deliberations resume Tuesday morning.
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