On September 13, 1999, Contresstis Tolbert, an employee at Jennie & Joe’s Curb Market in Columbus, Georgia, called police to report that a man had come into the store with a bag over his head and a semi-automatic pistol and robbed him of $300.
At first, the 17-year-old Tolbert said he could not identify the robber, but two days later, he told police the gunman was a teenager he knew named Lathan Word.
Word was originally from Andalusia, Georgia, but moved with his mother to Columbus for his senior year of high school. Word, who had just turned 18 and had never been in trouble with the law, was scheduled to report in five days to Paris Island, South Carolina for U.S. Marine Corps basic training camp. On September 15, 1999, police left a message at his home asking him to come in for questioning.
When Word called the police later that day, officers came to his home and took him away in handcuffs. He was charged with armed robbery and illegal use of a firearm.
On the day Word went on trial in 2000 in Muscogee County Superior Court, the prosecution offered to accept a guilty plea in return for a 10-year prison term. Word rejected the offer.
The primary prosecution evidence was Tolbert’s identification. Tolbert said he did not initially identify Word because he feared he would be killed if he were identified as a “snitch.”
The investigating police officer told the jury that he believed Tolbert was telling the truth. The store owner testified that Tolbert initially did not identify Word because he was afraid.
Word’s defense attorney attempted to portray Tolbert, who had prior convictions for shoplifting and possession of narcotics, as a liar who had actually stolen the money from the till and falsely claimed he was robbed by Word.
Word testified and denied committing the robbery. He and two other witnesses said that at the time of the robbery, they were driving to pick up some relatives of Word’s friends after school.
The jury convicted Word on September 7, 2000 and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Although an appellate lawyer was appointed to handle his appeal, no appeal was filed.
In 2005, Word filed his own motion for an out-of-time appeal and it was granted, but again, no appeal was filed. In January 2007, Word filed a hand-written federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking the right to appeal, but the petition was rejected. In March 2008, Word filed a notice of appeal in the Georgia Court of Appeals, but it was dismissed as untimely.
In June 2008, Word filed a hand-written motion for new trial with another motion for an out-of-time appeal and finally, he was successful. Attorney William J. Mason was appointed to represent Word and in 2010, the motion for new trial was amended to claim that Word received inadequate legal assistance at his trial.
The case was remanded to Muscogee County Superior Court for a hearing. At the hearing, Word’s attorney at trial conceded that he should have objected to the prosecutor’s questions that prompted the police officer on the case to testify that he believed Tolbert was truthful. The motion for new trial, however, was denied.
In March 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the motion for a new trial and vacated Word’s conviction.
The appeals court ruled that that the prosecution’s questioning of the police officer “moved beyond permissible support of the witness's veracity to the impermissible tactic of eliciting the officer's belief in the witness's truthfulness.”
On June 20, 2011, Word went on trial again. Tolbert, who was by then serving multiple life sentences for armed robberies and a murder committed in 2001, took the witness stand and at first refused to testify.
Twice, outside the presence of the jury, he refused to take the oath. He then said, “I refuse to lie. I’ve been lying all along.”
Mason, Word’s attorney, asked the judge to direct an acquittal and the request was granted. Thirty minutes later, Word was released after spending nearly 12 years in prison.
In March 2013, the Georgia Legislature passed a resolution to provide Word with $400,000 in compensation.
– Maurice Possley