Defendant Frank Gebhardt during a break in jury selection at Spalding County Superior Court Monday, June 18, 2018. POOL PHOTO BY MAX PELTZ

Potential jurors unfamiliar with notorious Spalding murder

Heather Coggins has waited 35 years for her uncle to get justice. So when a shortage of potential jurors threatened to delay the murder trial for the man accused of killing him, she made an hour-long drive to Spalding County to be sure the trial was still on schedule.

When only 127 of 325 summoned potential jurors answered their summons, the judge and others were worried the pool might not be large enough and could delay the start of the murder trial for Frankie Gebhardt.

But most told the judge they knew little to nothing about the case, which captured international headlines last October. That’s when Gebhardt and brother-in-law Bill Moore Sr. were arrested and charged in the 1983 murder of Timothy Coggins, one prosecutors say was driven in part by racial animus. The suspects are white; Coggins, 23 at the time, was African-American.

THE ARRESTS: How police say a cold case was solved

THE ALLEGATIONS: Men charged with dragging black man behind truck ‘proud’ of their crime

As she watched the questioning of potential jurors, Coggins was approached by an unlikely visitor who introduced herself as Sandra Long, Moore’s sister. She wanted to express her condolences to Timothy’s niece.

“It was awkward but appreciated,” Heather Coggins said.

PHOTOS: A look at Georgia’s cold case files

Long said she didn’t recall ever hearing her brother, who will be tried in October, discuss Timothy Coggins. But he, along with Gebhardt, allegedly talked a lot about their involvement in the gruesome murder. Coggins had been stabbed repeatedly and was then hooked by a chain to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged back and forth multiple times under the power lines by the side of U.S. 41. His mutilated body was found in the city of Sunny Side, which had about 330 residents then and only 134 now.

Judge W. Fletcher Sams said he was shocked by the number of jurors who failed to answer a summons for jury duty. POOL PHOTO BY MAX PELTZ
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Many of the prospective jurors said they were kids when Timothy Coggins was killed and barely remembered the incident. Some older citizens said they, too, had only faint memories of the killing.

One potential juror said he was new to the area “and when I heard about it, it was a shock.”

But some Spalding residents have lived with the case for 35 years. Witnesses who saw Gebhardt and Moore confront Coggins outside a convenience store, then drive away with the victim in his car, will figure prominently in the prosecution’s case. Others will testify they heard the suspects boast about killing Coggins, even arguing over which of them played the more significant role in his death, prosecutors said at a hearing last November.

In other news:

Christy Sims, founder of the Christy Sims Foundation, speaks about how her life has changed since a violent acid attack by her ex-boyfriend left her a whole new person. (ALYSSA POINTER/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Gebhardt and Moore were initially to be tried together, but the defense separated the cases.

Jury selection is expected to wrap up Tuesday. Besides the 53 potential jurors who were qualified on Monday, sheriff’s deputies attempted to personally visit 50 of of the 198 citizens who failed to appear. They located 13 who were ordered to be in court Tuesday in case they are needed.

Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.