Carlton Gary, in an undated file photo, was convicted in three of the rape and murder cases that terrorized Columbus in the 1970s. (Columbus Ledger-Inquirer)

Columbus ‘Stocking Strangler’ pursuing final death-row appeals

Carlton Gary, the “Stocking Strangler” who was convicted in one of the most notorious serial rape and murder cases in Georgia history, has long claimed police arrested the wrong man. But his death-row appeals have now almost run their course, meaning an execution date could be set for him soon.

Gary, now 67, was sentenced to death more than three decades ago for a crime spree that terrified those living in the Wynnton Road neighborhood near downtown Columbus. The “Stocking Strangler” raped his elderly female victims in their homes and then strangled most of them with a stocking. Over the past decade, newly discovered physical evidence has raised questions about the prosecution’s case. At the same time, however, the new evidence helped to prove the prosecution’s assertions that Gary was indeed involved.

Gary was convicted at trial of raping and killing three elderly women — Florence Scheible, Martha Thurmond and Kathleen Woodruff in 1977. Prosecutors presented additional evidence alleging that Gary raped and killed five other Columbus women and sexually assaulted another who survived because she played dead after her attack. Evidence was also presented that indicated Gary had committed similar crimes in New York.

But Gary’s lawyers contend newly discovered physical evidence, including a DNA test of semen found on the clothing of one of the victims, shows that Gary could not have committed all the crimes prosecutors claimed he did. They say the prosecution didn’t get it right and Gary’s jury did not hear the true story.

“It is an abomination in the state of Georgia for us to be sending someone to be executed when it is obvious he did not get a fair trial,” said Atlanta lawyer Jack Martin, who is asking the Georgia Supreme Court to take another look at the case. There is “compelling physical evidence” of Gary’s innocence, he said.

This includes a bite mark found on one of the victims that did not match Gary’s teeth, a size-10 footprint found near the entrance to another victim’s home that could not have been made by Gary’s size-13½, blood evidence and the new DNA evidence, Martin said.

Prosecutors strongly reject such assertions.

“The state has complete confidence in the verdict because of the overwhelming evidence presented at trial and Gary’s subsequent DNA match to the vaginal washing of a victim in this case,” Muscogee County District Attorney Julia Slater said. “This verdict has been reviewed by no fewer than 13 courts, none of whom have found any reason to reverse the conviction or the sentence.”

Gary’s execution was scheduled for December 2009, but the state Supreme Court stopped it with four hours to spare. It ordered a judge to consider DNA testing.

Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr. subsequently allowed DNA testing and held evidentiary hearings. In September, Jordan denied Gary’s extraordinary motion for new trial.

Gary’s lawyers filed an appeal, but the state Supreme Court recently decided not to hear it.

“This is an important case raising unresolved issues about the death penalty in Georgia, and it is the duty and responsibility of the Supreme Court to consider those cases,” Martin said. “It was shocking to me that they would not even take the case.”

Martin is now asking the high court to reconsider its decision.

The “Stocking Strangler” case received sensational publicity during the harrowing seven-month-long period of the attacks. The victims shared common characteristics: They were white women at least 55 years old. They died in their own homes where they lived alone. Except for one case, there were forced entries.

In the Scheible, Thurmond and Woodruff cases, prosecutors relied on a confession Gary gave to police and on fingerprint evidence that put Gary at the scenes. (Gary has claimed that an accomplice sexually assaulted and killed the women.)

In 2010, a year after Gary’s execution was halted, DNA tests excluded Gary from being the person who raped Thurmond, a 69-year-old retired schoolteacher. This was big news until it was later determined the semen sample had been contaminated at the GBI Crime Lab, rendering the initial findings meaningless.

The contamination also meant the sample taken from Thurmond was no longer suitable for DNA testing. Gary’s lawyers have contended that the state’s “reckless” handling of such potentially critical evidence should be enough to give Gary a new trial. In his ruling, Jordan denied that request.

Another DNA test was conducted on a swab of semen taken from the sleeping gown of Gertrude Miller, who survived her attack. Miller, 64 at the time, was the Stocking Strangler’s first victim, raped and severely beaten on Sept. 11, 1977.

Miller testified at Gary’s trial that she identified him as her attacker when she saw him on television after his arrest. But DNA tests determined the semen on Miller’s gown could not have come from Gary.

Tests did match Gary’s DNA to semen taken from 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein, who was found raped and strangled with a stocking in September 1977.

During the 1986 trial, prosecutors did not try to convict Gary in the Miller and Dimenstein cases. Instead, they presented evidence of those attacks to show jurors that Gary committed similar crimes.

“The state can indict and attempt to convict Mr. Gary on the Dimenstein case if they so choose,” Gary’s lawyers said in a recent court filing. But the newly discovered evidence should allow Gary to have either a new trial or a new sentencing hearing, they said.

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.