Georgia Supreme Court reverses two death sentences

The Georgia Supreme Court on Friday reversed two death sentences, one imposed against a Clayton County man who killed his neighbor and another involving two killings in Douglas County.

In the Clayton case, the court said David Aaron Perkins' trial counsel should have thoroughly investigated his troubled background so it could have been presented to the jury in the sentencing phase of his trial.

Perkins, of Riverdale, was convicted of killing 38-year-old Herbert Ryals III in August 1994 by stabbing him and smashing a whiskey bottle on his head. Prosecutors said Perkins killed Ryals to get his wallet.

The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice David Nahmias, sent the case back for a new sentencing trial, noting Perkins' new lawyers had unearthed an abundance of mitigation evidence that was not presented during the 1997 trial. The ruling detailed numerous accounts from relatives who said Perkins' father regularly beat him until the time he was a young teenager. At a picnic when Perkins was 4, his father beat him until he collapsed, witnesses said.

Even more powerful than the evidence of the abuse Perkins suffered as a youth was evidence showing how his behavior changed dramatically after he suffered two significant head injuries, Nahmias wrote.

When Perkins was 18, he was in a car wreck that left him in a coma for five days. When he was 20, he was attacked by two men, one of whom punctured Perkins' skull with the steel prongs of a rake. They had to be surgically removed, and medical records show two of the prongs penetrated Perkins' brain.

If such evidence were presented at trial, the ruling said, there is a reasonable probability the jury would not have sentenced Perkins to death.

In the Douglas County case, the court upheld the murder convictions but threw out the death sentence imposed against Nicholas Jason Bryant. During a May 2004 robbery, Bryant killed Billy Joe Kilgore, 68, and Marie Richards, 36, with gunshots to their heads. The jury sentenced Bryant to death for killing Richards, not Kilgore.

In Friday's ruling, written by Justice Harold Melton, the court found that the trial judge allowed the state to introduce unconstitutional victim-impact testimony in the sentencing phase. At the 2007 trial, Richards' sister gave "inflammatory" testimony such as how Bryant had shown he could not be a good inmate, Melton wrote. He added that the testimony "resembled a closing argument for the state more than a victim-impact statement."