The decision stunned both the prosecution and defense.
Barrow Sheriff Bud Smith, whose office investigated the case, is not happy with Motes’ ruling.
“A human being lost his life at that man’s hands,” Smith said Tuesday. “You depend on the system to do the right thing. I just think this was a gross misuse of power.”
Motes, who is retiring from the bench on Wednesday, could not be reached for comment.
According to a transcript of the sentencing hearing, Motes told Hamilton he was not finished after he imposed the life sentence. He said he was so surprised when the jury convicted Hamilton of murder and aggravated assault he couldn’t even remember what the appropriate sentence was.
“I don’t know how you felt, Mr. Hamilton, but I could not sleep Friday night,” the judge said.
The judge said he believed he’d made mistakes in rulings during the trial. He also described himself as the “13th juror” in the case and didn’t believe the evidence presented at trial supported a conviction.
Motes, who’s been a judge for more than two decades, told Hamilton he determined “a new trial is consistent with the principles of equity and justice. … I cannot end my career with what I believe to be an injustice.”
When Motes was finished, Hamilton thanked the judge and then said, “Your honor.”
But Motes cut him off. “It might be best to say nothing,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Sarah Griffie then told Motes, “The state obviously objects to everything that just happened.”
To which Motes replied, “I’m sure you do. And there are ways that the state of Georgia can appeal. … You are as surprised as I was the day Mr. Hamilton was convicted.”
Atlanta defense attorney Don Samuel, who has written books on Georgia criminal case law, said Motes’ decision to grant a new trial based on the judge’s own court motion was highly unusual.
“But it doesn’t strike me as being problematic,” Samuel said. “One of the grounds for granting a new trial can be that the judge was unhappy with the verdict. And the judge does indeed sit as the 13th juror.”
District Attorney Brad Smith declined to comment on Motes’ ruling.
Smith said his Sheriff’s Office investigators had built a strong case against Hamilton. “I felt the evidence was insurmountable that Hamilton was guilty,” he said.
According to incident reports, Hamilton had allowed hunters onto his property and at one point they saw Lay and two women driving away from Hamilton’s unoccupied trailer. When spotted by the hunters, Lay sped off, Smith said.
After 911 was called and officers responded, Hamilton, 75 at the time and a resident of Hoschton, showed up at the scene and said: “I’m going to be searching for him.”
Hamilton then said if he found Lay before the deputies found him, “You’ll have to call the coroner,” Smith said.
About 30 minutes later, deputies, responding to a new 911 call, found Lay, 34, inside his truck at the intersection of Old Hog Mountain Road and Charlie Hall Road, according to reports. He’d been fatally shot in the head.
If Lay did break into Hamilton’s place, he made off with a plastic bucket or two and some eating utensils, Smith said.
Lay’s mother, who lives in Michigan, had flown down to watch the trial and returned home before the unusual sentencing hearing, Smith said. “Now she’s found out her son’s convicted killer has been let go. I feel sorry for her.”
Jarett Sliz, one of Hamilton’s lawyers, said the defense is pleased with Motes’ decision.
“We were certainly surprised,” Sliz said. “We’re still researching the way he did it. It was definitely unusual.”