The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments on both sides Tuesday in the appeal of a trial court judge’s decision to toss out the indictment of a man charged with killing Cobb County couple Elrey and June Runion.
Ronnie Adrian Towns is accused of killing the Marietta residents 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.
The Runions left their Cobb County home Jan. 22, 2015, to drive to McRae in southeast Georgia and look at the car. However, they arrived to find there was no car, authorities said.
After the couple was missing for four days, police used cellphone records to pinpoint their location. Their bodies were found Jan. 26, 2015, with gunshot wounds to their heads along a dirt road near where Towns’ parents lived.
At the heart of the debate is whether the trial court was right when it threw out the indictment after ruling the court clerk’s selection of grand jurors didn’t comply with the law.
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 state’s high 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.”
Tim Vaughn, district attorney for the Oconee Judicial Circuit, said the argument for the case centers around the definition of randomness as it pertains to Georgia code 15-12-66.1.
The code was amended in 2014 to say that when there aren’t enough people present to seat a grand jury, the presiding judge can order the clerk to “choose at random from the names of persons summoned as trial jurors a sufficient number of prospective grand jurors necessary to complete the grand jury.”
Vaughn said the clerk was directed by the judge to call the prospective jurors on the list. As the clerk looked at the names on the list, she “knew some of those people” and their occupations because she was a longtime resident of Telfair County.
For example, the district attorney said the clerk knew one of the two jurors in question owned a car dealership, so she called him because she figured he could get to court in a hurry. That meets the definition of randomness, he added.
Justice David Nahmias said that just because the clerk contends her selection was random doesn’t make it correct.
“So that’s not a random list of people,” he said. “That’s a list of people the clerk knows.”
Gabrielle Pittman, an attorney representing the defense, argued that the law as it stands allows for inclusiveness and fairness during the jury selection process.
Pittman and her team argued the clerk called on people she knew “personally” from the trial jury list and asked if they could serve as grand jurors. Combined with that, and allowing two of the four potential grand jurors to be dismissed for “non-statutory” reasons, the clerk’s decision “frustrated” the process.
Justice Nels S.D. Peterson interjected and told the attorney that citizens are granted deferrals for their grand jury service for various legitimate reasons.
“Jurors don’t always get to self-select because they have meetings,” Pittman countered, referring to one juror who wasn’t added to the grand jury roster because of a previously scheduled meeting.
Peterson added it’s not uncommon for service to be deferred if a person has a vacation scheduled, for example.
“That is not a violation of anything,” he added.
Citing a previous court ruling, Pittman said there are two methods to ensure randomness: either go down a numerically or alphabetically-ordered list and contact citizens or draw names out of a hat.
The justices asked how would the state contact people who only provided residential addresses or P.O. boxes. Pittman said sheriff’s deputies could be used to track down people. However, Justice Sarah Warren wondered if that would be efficient.
Justice Michael Boggs added that a sheriff’s deputy can look at a list and choose which homes he will visit based on who he knows is or isn’t at home.
“That’s the same thing the clerk did,” he said. “It’s who he knows and where he (or she) works.”
The justices’ opinion on the appeal will be issued later this year.