The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld a trial court judge’s decision to toss out the indictment of a man charged with killing a Cobb County couple.
In a 7-2 ruling issued Monday, the court said the trial court was right when it threw out the indictment against Ronnie Adrian Towns after ruling the court clerk’s selection of grand jurors was not done “at random.” Justices Michael Boggs and J.J. Ellington dissented in the ruling.
Towns is accused of killing Marietta residents Elrey and June Runion, who sought to buy a 1966 Ford Mustang he listed for sale on Craigslist. Prosecutors argued that Towns lured the couple to Telfair County under the guise of selling them the vintage sports car he advertised on the site.
Timothy Vaughn, the Oconee Judicial Circuit district attorney, said he was “disappointed” in the ruling.
“I think they missed the boat completely,” he said of the majority’s opinion.
However, Vaughn said he will “absolutely” proceed with re-indicting Towns. He is also weighing whether to file a motion for the state court justices to reconsider the ruling.
Towns’ attorney in March 2017 filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, citing the “unconstitutional composition of the grand jury,” according to a summary of the case provided by the court. The trial court initially summoned 50 people, but fewer than 16 appeared. So, the judge ordered the clerk to call up people from a jury trial list to complete the grand jury.
According to the case summary, the clerk said four people were “randomly picked” from the list of trial jurors. She reportedly said she selected those four individuals because “she thought they could get to court.” Of those four people chosen and who appeared, two were chosen to serve on the grand jury.
After a hearing, the trial judge quashed the indictment because the clerk “identified specific individuals she personally knew, that she could readily contact and that she believed would be readily available.”
The state appealed the ruling, and argued the case in April before the Supreme Court.
In writing for the majority, Justice Keith Blackwell said the clerk relied on her “personal knowledge” of the four people she chose “and her estimate of the likelihood that they would be available to report immediately.”
Macon attorney Frank Hogue, who is representing Towns, said his team feels good about the ruling, but added the case is far from over. Hogue said his team did not believe the clerk did anything that was “intentionally nefarious.”
“She wasn’t trying to stack the grand jury,” he said. “She was just trying to get a minimum number of grand jurors to court to open the grand jury session. She was doing what she thought the judge wanted her to do.”
The dissenting justices agreed that the two jurors in question were not chosen randomly. However, they argue that the state law requiring clerks to choose grand jurors at random is not an “essential and substantial” part of the statute and a violation should not result in a judge tossing out indictments.
The criteria the clerk used to reach out to jurors she believed would be able to quickly appear in court does not show a disregard of the law, undermine the process outlined in the state law or compromise the integrity of the selection process, the dissent argued.
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