2nd August, 2011

Life for Jamie Ryan Weis

Spurning the death penalty, a judge sentenced a Pike County man to life in prison without parole [on July 14, 2011] for murdering a 73-year-old woman, perhaps ending a case that has epitomized the funding issues plaguing the state's public defender system.

Superior Court Judge Tommy Hankinson imposed the sentence on Jamie Ryan Weis, who broke into Catherine King's home on Feb. 1, 2006, and then killed her after she returned from running errands. He struck her in the head, cracking her skull, and shot her twice with her own gun.

Weis' case has received national attention because he sat in jail awaiting trial for more than two years without counsel to defend him. The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council initially appointed two private lawyers to defend Weis, but the case stalled when the agency did not have the funds to pay his attorneys.

Weis, 34, filed a pretrial appeal before the Georgia Supreme Court that sought to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty on grounds his right to a speedy trial had been violated. But the court, in a 4-3 decision, rejected Weis' claims.

Jury selection for the capital trial began last month, but Hankinson abruptly allowed Weis to enter a "blind plea." Under this procedure, Weis admitted killing and burglarizing King and then allowed the judge -- not the jury -- to impose sentence. Such pleas, used in some criminal cases, are highly unusual in capital trials.

Weis  has until mid-day Friday to withdraw his plea if he is not satisfied with Hankinson's sentence. Such a decision, which appears highly unlikely, would allow the death-penalty case to go to a jury trial.

The sentencing hearing was the latest twist in a case that took several unexpected turns. The state initially paid Weis' appointed lawyers, Bob Citronberg and Tom West, during their first several months of representation but then ran out of available funds as the cost of defending Fulton County courthouse killer Brian Nichols skyrocketed.

When Citronberg and West asked for a delay until funding was available, District Attorney Scott Ballard asked then-trial judge Johnnie Caldwell to replace the private attorneys with two local public defenders. The defenders objected, saying heavy case loads prohibited them from taking on a capital case, but Caldwell appointed them anyway. Those two defenders are now deceased, due to illness, and Caldwell resigned from the bench after being accused of making sexually charged comments to a local lawyer.

Citronberg and West were returned to the case and provided funding, and they were joined by Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Stephen Bright, who worked for free.

This week, Hankinson heard evidence from prosecutors in support of giving Weis a death sentence, and evidence from the defense in opposition.

Ballard accused Weis of having "a rotten soul," because he could have left without harming King after she returned home. Instead, he struck her repeatedly and then shot her, the DA said.

"That speaks volumes of who he is, what he's capable of doing, what it will take to stop him," Ballard said. "The evidence absolutely compels the death penalty."

Bright noted that Weis, the son of a West Virginia coal miner, was rejected by his mother and then abused and neglected by his grandmother. Weis attempted suicide in jail awaiting trial and suffers from manic depression and anxiety disorders, Bright said.

An expert witness testified Weis likely suffered brain damage when he inhaled gasoline fumes to get high as a teenager. He later settled down, got a steady job but then got hooked on crack cocaine before breaking into King's home.

"There's no excuse for what happened, there's no justification," Bright told Hankinson. "But Jamie Weis is more than the worst thing he ever did."