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Jerry Banks


Convicted twice of murder, Jerry Banks was exonerated before his third trial when it became apparent that the detective in charge of the investigation fabricated the only piece of physical proof in a case built entirely on circumstantial evidence.
 
While hunting with his dog on November 7, 1974, in a wooded area of Henry County, Georgia, Jerry Banks—a 23-year-old semi-employed truck driver—found two dead bodies wrapped in a red bedspread. Upon making the discovery, he went to the nearest road and flagged down Andrew Eberhardt, a passing motorist. He explained the situation and asked Eberhardt to call the police. Investigators arrived at the crime scene later that afternoon to find Banks waiting with his hunting gear in hand.
 
The police identified the two victims—who were both Caucasian—from rings inscribed with their names. The male victim was Marvin King, a 38-year-old high school band instructor. The female victim was 19-year-old Melanie Ann Hartsfield, a former student of King’s and the assistant choir director at a nearby junior high school. An autopsy performed that night revealed that King died from two shotgun blasts, one to his head and the other to his back. Hartsfield was also shot twice, once in the back and once in the neck. The pathologist placed the time of death at around 2:30 p.m. that day.
 
The next morning, investigators returned to the crime scene where they found two red Winchester Western buckshot casings within 40 feet of the blood stains. Upon making this discovery, the police confiscated Banks’s hunting gun and subjected it to various tests. The ballistics test, although by no means conclusive, suggested that his gun was the murder weapon. When police informed him that the shells matched his shotgun, he refuted the insinuation and denied any involvement in the crime. The police finally arrested Banks after finding a third shotgun shell at the crime scene, which they traced to his firearm.
 
Although poor, Banks scraped together enough money to hire Hudson John Myers, a local attorney. Myers’s incompetence and his complete mishandling of the case nearly cost Banks his life. From the outset, he failed to pursue several promising leads, and he failed to locate Eberhardt, the only witness who could corroborate the details of Banks’s story. The police offered little support in the matter—they claimed that they did not know the name of the motorist who first notified them of the crime. Eberhardt’s absence was significant because it allowed the prosecutor to suggest that Banks had made up the story about the passing motorist and that he had reported the murders himself. From there, the jury could then assume that Banks was a liar, and that nothing he said could be trusted.
 
The defense produced one alibi witness—Banks’s neighbor, Grace Slaughter—who testified that Banks was working at her house around the time King and Hartsfield were killed. To explain the presence of the shotgun shells, Myers called Banks’s brother, Perry, who testified that he used Banks’s shotgun a week prior to the murder and may have discharged the incriminating shells near the location of the two bodies.
 
Although the prosecution never established a clear motive, the jury found Banks guilty of both murders and sentenced him to death. Afterwards, Eberhardt, on his own initiative, called the trial judge and insisted that he had in fact given his name when he first called the police. The defense promptly appealed for a second trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence. The trial judge denied the motion, but the Georgia Supreme Court reversed his decision and granted a new trial.
 
Instead of exhausting more resources to reconvict Banks, the prosecution offered him a deal: life in prison for a guilty plea. Maintaining his innocence, Banks refused, saying, “Even if they let me walk away free. I didn’t kill those people.”
 
His second trial, which began a year after the murders, proceeded similarly to the first. Once again, Banks’s attorney, Hudson Myers, proved to be an incompetent and unwilling defender. He did not call Grace Slaughter—Banks’s only alibi witness—to testify, nor did he call Banks’s brother, Perry, to provide an alternate explanation for the presence of the bullet casings. The only witness who testified on his client’s behalf was Eberhardt.
 
The trial ended after two days, and for a second time, Banks was found guilty. Concluding that the murders “were outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman,” the jury sentenced Banks to death. Under Georgia law, Banks’s conviction and death sentence were automatically appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed the murder conviction and the death sentence.
 
While on death row, Banks attracted the attention of Alex Crumbley, a public defender, who agreed, after reviewing the evidence, to represent him in lieu of Hudson Myers. Facing disbarment proceedings for his shoddy work in other trials, Myers had since abandoned Banks’s appeal. Crumbley later passed the case on to three of his colleagues: A.J. Welch, Jr., Stephen P. Harrison, and his own brother, Wade, all of whom agreed to work for free. Convinced of their client’s innocence, they went before Judge Sam Whitmire during the summer of 1978 and argued for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Judge Whitmire denied their motion and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed his decision on appeal.
 
Despite the setback, Banks’s defense team continued to push forward. A more thorough investigation into the crime yielded an array of different witnesses who never testified at either trial. They discovered that four men building a house about 800 yards from the crime scene heard several shots fired in rapid succession around the time that King and Hartsfield were murdered. Since Banks’s gun required at least five seconds to reload and shoot, the shots could not have come from his single-shot weapon. The Stockbridge Chief of Police, Paul Collier, and his son, also a policeman, claimed that they, too, heard rapid-fire shots that could not have come from Banks’s shotgun.
 
Several minutes after the shots were fired, Dean Floyd, a farmer, reported seeing a white man in an army jacket, wielding what looked like a Browning automatic, on a road adjacent to the murder site. He called the sheriff the next day to report his observations, but the sheriff never returned his call. Another witness, Leon Scruggs, recalled a curious incident that occurred around noon that day: He saw two cars, one a cream-colored Chevy, the other a dark-colored station wagon (Marvin King was driving a red Opel station wagon) on a road that was a half mile down from the location of the bodies. He saw a woman sitting in the passenger side of the station wagon, and two men outside, arguing. Banks’s original attorney, Hudson Myers, made no attempt to contact these witnesses so they could be interrogated or subpoenaed.
 
The defense presented their findings to the trial judge, Hugh Sosebee. After hearing the new evidence, Judge Sosebee remained unmoved and refused to grant a new trial. In June of 1980, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed and, with one dissenting vote, they overturned the conviction and ordered a third trial.
 
Before the third trial began, the defense uncovered yet another piece of evidence: the lead investigator, Philip S. Howard, may have test-fired Banks’s gun the day after the murders and then placed the discharged shells at the scene of the crime. The possibility that Howard fabricated evidence arose from a conflict between Howard’s testimony and statements given by a former county commissioner, who claimed that he saw Howard test-fire Banks’s gun the day after the crime, a Friday. Howard testified that he first obtained Banks’s gun not that Friday, but two days later, on Sunday. Because it had been proven that Howard had mishandled evidence in several other criminal investigations, Banks’s defense planned on using this chronological inconsistency in conjunction with Howard’s past history to discredit his testimony and invalidate the prosecution’s only piece of physical evidence.
 
When prosecutors learned that the defense could destroy the credibility of their key witness, they agreed to drop the charges. On December 22, 1980, Banks was released after spending six years on death row. Following his release, he struggled to piece together the remnants of his former life. His wife, Virginia, wanted a divorce and custody of their three children. The prospect of losing his family proved too much for Banks to handle. On March 29, 1981, he shot and killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself. In the aftermath of his death, Banks’s mother, Nannie L. Dodson, sued Henry County officials for $12 million in damages for mishandling the initial murder investigation. Her grandchildren eventually received $150,000 in an out-of-court settlement with the county.
 
- Jason Robin
 
State:GA
County:Henry
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1974
Convicted:1975
Exonerated:1980
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:23
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense