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Judge throws out death sentence in murder case involving Dunwoody teen

A federal judge in Atlanta has thrown out the death sentence imposed against a man who carjacked and killed a 16-year-old Dunwoody High School student.

Eric Perkinson must stand trial within. 120 days on the question of whether he is intellectually disabled, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ordered. Alternatively, he could be sentenced to life in prison. If a jury is to find Perkinson to be intellectually disabled, he would be ineligible to get the death penalty.

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In her ruling, Totenberg found that Perkinson’s lead attorney, Alan Medof, abandoned his client before and during trial, making him incapable of mounting a defense. Also, Totenberg faulted then-Superior Court Judge Jefferson Davis Jr. for refusing to delay the trial when Medof’s co-counsel, Chris Paul, pleaded for more time to prepare.

During the 1999 trial, Perkinson, of Cartersville, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Louis Nava, a member of his school’s wrestling team. After his death, fellow students, teammates and parents raised money for the Louis G. Nava Memorial Park in Dunwoody.

Louis Nava, a 16-year-old Dunwoody High School student when he was shot and killed in 1998. (Special)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The killing occurred June 6, 1998, when Nava and his best friend, 17-year-old Dakarai Sloley, were carjacked in the Mount Vernon Shopping Center parking lot by Perkinson and one of his accomplices. With Nava shoved into the trunk and Sloley sitting in the passenger seat, they drove 40 miles to a secluded road in Bartow County.

Perkinson marched Nava into the woods and fatally shot him in the head. Sloley was shot in the arm when he fled for his life. He flagged down a pizza deliveryman and later identified Perkinson as the gunman.

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As Perkinson’s case neared trial, his lead attorney wasn’t ready, Totenberg wrote in a Jan. 31 decision. “Medof was incompetent and a nonentity as far as (Perkinson’s) legal representation is concerned.”

Medof, who died last year, was suspended from practicing law for two years by the Florida State Bar because of a crack cocaine addiction. He acknowledged that he may have slept during parts of Perkinson’s trial, and court records show he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute when he was Perkinson’s attorney.

Eric Perkinson, convicted of the carjacking and murder of Louis Nava. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Paul, who had not expected to play a major role in Perkinson’s defense, discovered only days before trial that he would be lead counsel. He did present expert testimony and evidence, including scores for IQ tests Perkinson took as a young child. They indicated he was mildly intellectually disabled.

But to be found intellectually disabled under Georgia law, defendants must clear a three-pronged test: The must show they have significant deficits in intellectual functioning, deficits in adaptive behavior and the onset of those issues prior to age 18.

Without enough time to prepare, Paul couldn’t present evidence to prove the second prong — that Perkinson struggled to adapt in society, Totenberg said. Perkinson’s new legal team has since presented testimony by social workers and former teachers who explained how he struggled to adapt, she said.

Judge Jefferson Davis, Jr. declined requests by defense lawyers to delay Eric Perkinson’s trial so they could have more time to prepare. (Kimberly Smith/staff)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Had this been presented during the 1999 trial, there’s a reasonable probability the jury would have found Perkinson to be intellectually disabled, Totenberg said.

In a statement, Perkinson’s lawyers, Jill Benton and Doug Bennett, said the state had recognized that Perkinson suffered from an intellectual disability by the time he reached elementary school. “The evidence of his disability is wide-ranging,” they said. “The court’s order is simply an acknowledgement that the jury should have been given a chance to weigh it all.”

The state Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on Totenberg’s ruling, a spokesman said.

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