Wrongfully convicted Ga. soldiers seek help from state — again

Mark Jones cleans an AirBnB on March 2, 2020, in Port Aransas, Texas. Jones' niece helped him get work when he was released from prison in 2017. (credit: Annie Rice / AJC)
Mark Jones cleans an AirBnB on March 2, 2020, in Port Aransas, Texas. Jones' niece helped him get work when he was released from prison in 2017. (credit: Annie Rice / AJC)

Credit: Annie Rice/AJC

Credit: Annie Rice/AJC

On March 15, the soldiers turned prisoners turned exonerees seemed closer to the help they need.

The state House had passed a trio of bills to pay Mark Jones, Kenny Gardiner and Dominic Lucci $1 million each. This was an attempt to assist with the myriad struggles they faced after 25 years in prison for a murder even the state’s star witness now says they didn’t commit. But before the bills could make it to a vote in the Senate, the COVID-19 pandemic shook up and then shut down the legislative session.

Late last week, state Rep. Derek Mallow, D-Savannah, filed three new bills, asking for $1 million each, paid out in monthly checks for 20 years. An economist hired by Karsman McKenzie Hart, the Savannah law firm representing the veterans, found that they would have made $3 million if they had stayed and retired from the military. They planned to stay before they were convicted of murder in 1992.

“We have to rightly compensate those folks just like we would anybody who’s suffered an injustice,” Mallow said, adding that he’s hearing support from colleagues. “I think we can all agree that’s an injustice.”

Last year, the pandemic year, mercifully wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been for the ex-soldiers. It was basically normal, compared to the other years since their release in 2017. Which is to say, they still faced — and continue to face — tremendous difficulty in building their lives. They work constantly and don’t have time, energy or resources to do much else.

“Right now, I’m making about $2 an hour over the cost of living,” said Gardiner, who cleans vacation rental homes with Jones’ in a colorful Texas town on the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s not like I can save up anything.”

Jim McCloskey, second from right, poses for a photo with three men he helped free from prison. From left, Kenny Gardiner, Dominic Lucci, McCloskey and Mark Jones. McCloskey founded Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit that works to free wrongfully convicted inmates. (Image courtesy of Diane Bladecki)
Jim McCloskey, second from right, poses for a photo with three men he helped free from prison. From left, Kenny Gardiner, Dominic Lucci, McCloskey and Mark Jones. McCloskey founded Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit that works to free wrongfully convicted inmates. (Image courtesy of Diane Bladecki)

Credit: Courtesy of Diane Bladecki

Credit: Courtesy of Diane Bladecki

The Fort Stewart soldiers were arrested in Savannah on Jan. 31, 1992, in the murder of Stanley Jackson, a 35-year-old Marine veteran who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting while walking along the street. The defendants were in town for a bachelor party for Jones. He was supposed to marry the next morning but had to call off the wedding after the arrests.

Lost on the way to a strip club, the soldiers, just a few years out of high school, happened upon the Rev. James White, the lone eyewitness who was walking into a police station for an interview. White later identified them as the shooters, though he has since said he was lying because of pressure from officials and community leaders to help solve the case. The state painted the trio, who are white, as racists who shot a Black man at random for the thrill of killing, partly inspired by fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons.

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously overturned their convictions in December 2017, leading to their release. Prosecutors dropped the charges.

Lucci went to be near family in Ohio and finally found a job after many months. But like his friends Jones and Gardiner, he struggles after so many years in a waking nightmare.

Gardiner said they still don’t have the money or time for therapy. Gardiner has said he’s afraid of facing his emotions alone after holding everything in for a quarter of a century.

Gardiner, like the others, has dreams waiting, things he told himself he’d do when he walked free. One of the biggest: “Visiting all the places I’ve never been able to see.”

As it is, he can hardly get a day off.

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