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Elgerie Cash

Other Georgia Exonerations
Elgerie Cash, left, with her daughter and co-defendant, Jennifer Weathington.
It was 2:30 p.m. on May 30, 2011, Memorial Day, when 45-year-old Elgerie Cash dialed 911 from her home just outside Dallas, Georgia, about an hour northwest of Atlanta. She said her daughter’s boyfriend, Lennis Donovan “Donny” Jones, had accidentally shot himself.

The first responders were officers with the Paulding County Sheriff’s Office, who arrived two minutes later. They found 44-year-old Jones upstairs in a bedroom, and 19-year-old Jennifer Weathington, Cash’s daughter, cradling his bleeding head. Paramedics quickly arrived, and Jones was rushed to the hospital, where he died a few hours later.

In the chaos of the moment, Cash first told officers that there had been one shot from the .40 caliber Glock pistol. A few moments later, she changed her story and said there had been two shots. She said she had been showing Jones the gun when it accidentally went off. She said that she pulled the gun’s slide to empty out the chamber, and Jones grabbed the weapon from her and said “It’s not loaded now.” She said she could see a remaining round and told Jones that it was still loaded. But he dismissed her, put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. His autopsy would show he was legally drunk at the time of the shooting.

The sheriff’s office initially investigated the shooting as an accident. The women had called 911 immediately, gave aid to Jones, gave consistent statements, and seemed appropriately shaken by what they had seen. But there was some doubt; Cash had told investigators that Jones had shot himself in the temple, but the bullet wound was an inch behind his right ear.

An autopsy was performed on June 1 by Dr. Jonathan Eisenstat, an assistant medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He spent approximately 45 minutes with Jones’s body, and his initial report suggested that Jones had not shot himself. Eisenstat said that in examining the entry wound, he found no stippling – the dusting of gunpowder that would be present if the weapon had been held against Jones’s head. That absence, he said, suggested that the Glock had been at least 18 inches away, a distance that made an accidental suicide unlikely.

The sheriff’s office was surprised by those findings. They pushed back, asking Eisenstat’s supervisor to confirm, which he did without doing his own examination.

Now, the investigation turned in a new direction. The sheriff’s office obtained a search warrant and returned to the women’s house on June 6. During their search, they found Jones’s baseball cap in the laundry room. Crime scene photos would show it on the bedroom dresser; it was partially obscured by latex gloves discarded by the EMTs and missed by sheriff’s deputies during the initial crime-scene intake. When the hat was brought in for examination, deputies found a hole in it that matched up to the entry wound in Jones’s head as well as traces of Jones’s blood on the inside.

The discovery of the hat did not change Eisenstat’s opinion, and he would not look at the item until two months later. He said the lack of substantial blood on the hat meant it was unlikely that Jones was wearing the hat when he was shot. Weathington and Cash were arrested on December 19, 2011 and charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Prior to trial, Weathington was offered a deal: if she testified against her mother, she would be allowed to plead guilty to tampering with evidence, a minor charge that would have carried no prison time. She declined.

Weathington was represented by a court-appointed attorney named John Rife. Cash had hired an attorney and paid him a lot of money upfront. The attorney then withdrew because of a conflict, leaving her with little money for her defense. She ultimately hired an attorney named Thomas Ford.

Prosecutors had no firm theory of the crime; it wasn’t even clear who had pulled the trigger. But it was Cash’s gun, so she had a clearer connection to the shooting.

During the months leading up to the trial, an investigator working with Rife started to wonder whether Ford was in over his head. Cash had complained to the investigator that Ford wouldn’t take her calls, and that he had asked her to help him serve subpoenas. In addition, the investigator would later testify, Ford appeared disinterested in the results of a forensic ballistics report done for Rife.

The trial began on October 14, 2013 in Superior Court of Paulding County. During jury selection, Cash’s ex-husband had come into the courtroom. Cash told Ford that she objected to his presence, and he told her to “Shut, the fuck up, bitch.”

His conduct would be erratic throughout the trial. He cursed so much that the jurors asked Judge James Osborne to make him stop. He mocked the voice of a witness who had had throat cancer. Several people thought he fell asleep at times, and he appeared to have brought few if any files with him, asking Rife if he could use his materials.

The state now had the loose makings of a motive. Jones and Cash had been friends since they were teenagers, at one time living together for three years before Jones moved out of Cash’s house. But in the time before the shooting, there had been a more serious rift between them, based in large part on Jones dating Weathington, and the 20-years-plus age gap between the two. In addition, one of Jones’s co-workers testified that a young woman had called the business a few days after the death to inquire about any life insurance policies that Jones had. Beyond that, the state’s case was a series of witnesses who testified about the physical and forensic evidence that they believed pointed to a homicide. Eisenstat was the critical witness, although on cross-examination he admitted that he formed his final opinion before studying the hat. In addition to noting the absence of stippling around Jones’s head, Eisenstat said the blood spatter on Jones’s hands were from his head wound.

According to the state’s evidence, the bullet’s trajectory – if the wound was not self-inflicted – meant the Glock would have to been fired from the hip at a distance of about two feet, a difficult shot. The state’s ballistics expert, while not conceding that Jones had been wearing the hat, testified that the hat had been shot from a distance of 2-3 inches, which would be consistent with a self-inflicted wound.

The state had staged a re-enactment of the crime, and it required one of the women – neither of who was a firearms expert – to shoot Jones in this manner, then fire a bullet through the hat, and then figure out how to leave a fine mist of blood on the hat’s inside to make it look like an accidental death. Even District Attorney Donald Donovan said he was stumped on the series of events. He would say in closing arguments: “I also cannot explain how Donny Jones’ hat got a bullet hole in it. But you know what? I don’t have to explain that.”

Rife had hired a ballistics expert to produce a report, which was favorable to the women, but the expert was never called to testify. The investigator who worked with Rife would later say the expert wasn’t called because of a concern that the testimony might be more helpful to Cash than to Weathington, who was Rife’s client.

In the end, neither Ford nor Rife called any witnesses. During the defense closing arguments, Ford destroyed a packet of DVDs that had held some of the state’s evidence. He put on Jones’s hat and pretended to summon the dead man from the grave and speak to Cash.

All this was too much for Donovan, who had to remind jurors that their job was serious work as befitting a serious crime. Cash and Weathington were found guilty on October 25, 2013 on all charges and each sentenced to life in prison. Upon being dismissed, the jurors were said to have run out of the courthouse to avoid contact with Ford.

Cash and Weathington quickly filed a motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel and insufficient evidence. A hearing was held over May 12-13, 2014. During that hearing, the women’s attorneys – Andrew Fleischman and Robert Citronberg – brought in Dr. Carol Terry, a forensic pathologist, to refute Eisenstat’s findings. She testified that the lack of stippling didn’t necessarily mean the gun was far away from Jones’s head; the angle could have affected the discharge. She also closely examined the photos of the blood spatter found on Jones’s hands. She said many of the small dots had holes in the center, which was consistent with blood and saliva being coughed up by a victim as he struggled for life. She also noted that the EMTs could have contaminated the bedroom and transferred Jones’s blood as they treated and then moved him.

During the hearing, the trial decisions of Rife and Ford also were examined. Both attorneys testified. Ford’s erratic behavior and lack of preparation were sharply criticized, while Rife’s decision to not use a ballistics expert was also dissected. The women’s appellate attorneys said that while Rife’s decision could appear strategic, it was still ineffective because the expert testimony was necessary to refute the state’s evidence. Moreover, because Rife never confronted Ford after hearing concerns about his pre-trial conduct and lack of preparation, he had hitched his client’s wagon to Ford’s. As Citronberg said during the hearing, “They sunk or they swam together.” In 2015, Ford received a reprimand from the State Bar of Georgia for his conduct in this case.

Osborne vacated the convictions on May 13 and ordered a new trial. He said that the convictions were “contrary to the interests of justice and equity” and that both women had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Cash and Weathington were released on $15,000 bond on May 22, 2014. The state appealed Osborne’s ruling, but the Georgia Supreme Court rejected its appeal in 2015. As a new trial was being scheduled, Weathington and Cash filed a motion to dismiss based on speedy trial violations and double jeopardy. Osborne was now retired, but Judge Dean Bucci of Superior Court of Paulding County granted their motion on April 19, 2016. He wrote: “Here, there is no evidence of conduct before, during, or after the shooting that one defendant intentionally aided or abetted the other or intentionally advised, encouraged, hired, counseled, or procured the other to commit murder.”

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed that ruling on October 30, 2017, writing that Bucci had overstepped and that the evidence, while not conclusive, did establish “common criminal intent.”

The retrial began in April 2019. This time, Cash and Weathington had forensic witnesses and new attorneys, Keenan Parsons and Aaron Henrickson. Terry testified on the deficiencies of the state’s case, and she was joined by Dr. J.C. Upshaw Downs, a former regional medical examiner for coastal Georgia. He testified that the state had approached him to testify on its behalf. He declined and then produced a 29-page report on the problems with the state’s case—everything from the blood spatter to the lack of stippling and the lack of brain matter inside the hat. What Downs kept returning to was that Eisenstat, now the GBI’s chief medical examiner, had developed cognitive bias and discounted conflicting information. When Eisenstat testified, he admitted that he had erred in tying the blood spatter to the head wound rather than to the aspiration.

Jones had tested positive for substantial gunpowder residue on his right hand, which would be consistent with firing a gun. At the first trial, Jones’s son had testified that he was sure his dad was left-handed, which the state had said showed he didn’t fire the weapon, since the wound was on the right side of his head. But Downs’s research revealed that self-inflicted wounds weren’t always done with the victim’s dominant hands. In addition, after one of Jones’s hunting buddies testified that Jones was left-handed, he acknowledged on cross-examination that he had told investigators that Jones was right-handed.

On May 1, 2019, the jury acquitted Cash and Weathington of all charges.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/12/2019
Last Updated: 5/16/2019
State:Georgia
County:Paulding
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life
Race:White
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:45
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No