A lack of physical evidence may not be the biggest challenge faced by prosecutors in the trial of a Spalding County man accused in the 1983 murder of a young black man.
Opening statements are set for Wednesday morning in the trial of 60-year-old Franklin Gebhardt, one of two men charged in what the state contends was a racially motivated killing.
With the murder weapon irretrievable and DNA evidence unavailable, prosecutors will be forced to rely on witnesses that, for the most part, come with extensive personal baggage. Some have spent time in prison.
At least one, convicted child molester Christopher Vaughn, is still there. Vaughn, who has been sentenced to four separate prison terms since 1998, will testify that when he was 10 years old, he overheard Gebhardt brag that he and brother-in-law William Moore Sr. had stabbed 23-year-old Timothy Coggins some 30 times. Coggins was then dragged by a chain connected to a pickup truck.
Coggins had been “messing with my old lady,” Gebhardt said, according to GBI special agent Jared Coleman, who helped bring the 35-year-old cold case to trial.
Vaughn is also expected to testify that years after Coggins’ death, he heard Gebhardt threaten a man during an argument by saying: “I got away with it once.”
Former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said Vaughn’s testimony could be problematic if prosecutors gave him a deal for reduced prison time in exchange for his testimony. It’s as yet unclear whether that occurred.
“If you make a deal with someone like that you better be able to corroborate it,” James said. “Jurors don’t like snitches.”
But the bigger hurdle for Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ben Coker could be that Vaughn was only 10 at the time he allegedly overheard Gebhardt’s admission of guilt.
“I would be very concerned about consistency,” James said. “Children can embellish, or think they heard someone say something and it turns out it was someone else.”
“I wouldn’t be as concerned if he was 20 at the time,” James said. “Still, 35 years is a long time.”
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And some witnesses contradict others. Willard Sanders told investigators that Coggins’ death stemmed from a drug deal gone bad. But others said it had something to do with Coggins dancing with a white woman at the People’s Choice Club, since closed.
Multiple witnesses placed Coggins in a vehicle investigators believe was Gebhardt’s gold Mercury Comet. Coggins’ badly mutilated body was found off Minter Road in the rural town of Sunny Side, not far from where Gebhardt lived.
Moore’s attorney Harry Charles called the prosecution’s witnesses “scum” following a probable cause hearing in November. Moore will stand trial later this year.
Gebhardt’s fate will be decided by the 8-woman, 4-man jury selected Tuesday. The trial is expected to last between two to three weeks.
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