Hand-painted State of Georgia seal. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Killer’s lawyers: Prosecutor paid witnesses and hid it

An angry Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon said during a hearing Monday on a motion for a new trial that the witnesses — three of them flown from New Jersey — were only reimbursed for the wages they lost while waiting in a Covington motel until time to testify in the 2012 death penalty trial of Rodney Young.

Young was living and working in New Jersey when he drove to Georgia to murder his ex-girlfriend’s son.

“These witnesses did not make any money to come down here,” said Zon, who obtained the pay records from each worker before they were reimbursed. “It’s insulting.”

But Zon conceded that she had never before given a witness more than the $25 per diem allowed by Georgia law or reimbursed witnesses for expenses such as meals, transportation and hotels. Prosecutors called 14 witnesses who lived in New Jersey, but only three of them, plus one witness from Riverdale, were paid for wages they lost while being away from their jobs to testify.

Except for expert testimony, paying “lay” witnesses “has never happened before in a criminal prosecution in Georgia,” said Josh Moore, one of Young’s lawyers. “This is an inappropriate, illegal payment. … She held a $700 check over their heads illegally and the jury needed to hear about it.”

Young’s lawyers, including attorneys from ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, were in a Covington courtroom Monday to argue for a new trial because the payments were not disclosed and that information could have been used when those witnesses were questioned.

In the trial three years ago, Young’s lawyers argued he was intellectually disabled, which would have made him ineligible for the death penalty. The defense called some of his teachers, who testified that there was evidence of the disability.

The prosecution countered by calling former co-workers, including three of those paid, who said Young did his job well, was punctual and showed no signs of an intellectual disability.

Young’s lawyers say his work records, since acquired, show otherwise. They argued Monday that the paid witnesses — Benito Lopez, Edward Harris, Wanda Wilcher and Latrice Rivers — testified in such a way as to ensure they’d get the money.

ACLU lawyer Brian Stull said just as Lopez, Harris, Wilcher and Rivers would do a good job in order to get paid by their employers, they would give the testimony Zon wanted so she would reimburse them for the wages they lost while taking part in the trial.

Lopez and Harris were paid $700, Wilcher more than $400, and Rivers $100. Each also got the $25 per diem that Georgia law allows.

Zon said she didn’t tell Young’s lawyers about the reimbursements for lost wages because they didn’t ask.

Moreover, she said the suggestion by Young’s lawyers that the four witnesses lied because of the money did not make sense. “They broke even is not an incentive to lie,” Zon said. “That does not make any sense.”

It could be several months before Judge Samuel Ozburn rules. Young’s lawyers are also challenging the law that requires proof of intellectual disability beyond a doubt, the highest legal standard, which no other state uses.

Young murdered 28-year-old Gary Lamar Jones because his mother, Doris Jones, had ended their seven-year relationship and moved to Georgia to live with her son.

On March 30, 2008, Doris Jones came home from work to find her son bound to a chair, stabbed in the neck and bludgeoned with a hammer. Messages written in blood were scrawled on the walls — “get out of the state Atlanta mom” and “we’ll get you Atlanta mom.”

Witnesses led police to Young, who offered to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without parole. But Zon pushed for the death penalty.

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