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Kenneth Gardiner

Other Georgia Exonerations with Innocence Organization Involvement
Shortly after 10 p.m. on January 31, 1992, 35-year-old Stanley Jackson was gunned down near the intersection of 33rd and East Broad Streets in Savannah, Georgia.

A witness, James White, told police that two white men fired military-type automatic or semi-automatic rifles—possibly AK-47s—from the passenger side of a black 1992 Chevrolet Cavalier while a third man drove.

Police officer Deborah Evans drove White to the Savannah police station. When they were getting out of the squad car at the station, a car pulled up and the occupants asked for directions to Club Asia, a topless bar located a few blocks away. As the car drove off, White told police that the car looked like the vehicle driven by the gunmen.

The occupants of the car, 20-year-old Mark Jones, 21-year-old Kenneth Gardiner, and 22-year-old Dominic Lucci, were soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Stewart. They had driven to Savannah for an impromptu bachelor party for Jones, who was going to be married the next day in the chapel at Fort Stewart. They first went to Tops Lounge, but Jones was refused entry because he was underage. As they were trying to decide what to do, another customer overheard them and suggested Club Asia.

Police went into the club and brought Jones, Gardiner, and Lucci outside where they were made to stand under a light. Although White said he could not be sure they were the men he saw, police took all three into custody.

Police searched the car, which had been a gift to Gardiner from his father, but found no evidence connecting them to the shooting. The men denied involvement in the crime and maintained that until 9:15 or 9:30 p.m., they were about 50 miles away from the scene of the shooting, participating in a rehearsal for Jones’s wedding. They said they had driven to Savannah at the last minute, and had pulled up to ask for directions as police were investigating the shooting.

Nonetheless, all three men were charged with malice murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

Subsequently, at a preliminary hearing, White identified Jones and Gardiner as the gunmen.

Jones, Gardiner, and Lucci went to trial in Chatham County Superior Court in November 1992. Sylvia Ann Wallace, a fellow soldier, testified that earlier on the day of the shooting, Jones tried to borrow some equipment from her, saying he was going to Savannah that night to shoot someone. Wallace testified that Jones said, “I got a black guy up there I got to get,” However, the defense undercut her testimony by showing that Jones wasn’t even on the base that day—he was already on leave in anticipation of his wedding.

White testified and again identified Gardiner and Jones as the gunmen, and said that Gardiner’s Cavalier resembled the car from which the shots were fired. He admitted that he initially said only that the car “looked like” the one involved in the shooting. Evidence showed the Cavalier’s rear passenger window did not roll down, casting doubt on White’s description of two gunmen both firing from the passenger side. In addition, although White said he saw two guns being fired, ballistics testing showed that shell casings recovered from the street came from just one weapon.

Police conceded that they did not ask White to view any of the defendants in a photographic or live lineup.

Gary Spencer, who was in the Chatham County Jail on a robbery charge, testified that Jones asked him, “What if (we were) riding in the same vehicle…and I take a gun…I’m gonna scare this guy, and point at his feet…and if the bullet ricochet(s) and hit(s) them, is that murder or is that an accident?”

Fellow servicemen testified that Lucci and Gardiner regularly played Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy role-playing game, and that Lucci kept several throwing knives and claimed to be a weapons expert.

The only physical evidence presented by the prosecution was a swab from Jones’s hand that, according to a criminal analyst, tested positive for the presence of gunshot residue. The analyst admitted failing to follow protocol when he did not “thoroughly wash and dry” his hands before taking the sample from Jones, and failed to wear gloves while handling the swab. Moreover, cartridge cases found at the scene were not sent to the laboratory, so no comparison was made between residue on the casings and the residue on the swab.

The defense presented evidence that Jones had handled clothing that day that had been worn during a machine gun range exercise a day before the crime, and that a transfer of residue from the machine gun range could have occurred. The defense also called a gunshot residue expert who had formerly worked for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The expert testified that the level of residue on the swab from Jones's hand was half of the threshold level required for a positive finding. “This is clearly not gunshot residue,” the expert said.

Gardiner, Lucci, and Jones did not testify. Witnesses who worked at the rehearsal dinner party testified that the three men did not leave the restaurant in Hinesville until nearly 9:30 p.m. The defense noted that Hinesville is a 50-minute ride to Savannah and the shooting took place at about 10 p.m.

During closing arguments, the prosecution said the three defendants were “thrill seekers” acting out a Dungeons and Dragons fantasy. The defense noted that an autopsy showed that Jackson had ingested cocaine before he was killed, implying that perhaps drugs motivated the shooting.

On November 19, 1992, the jury convicted all three men of malice murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. They were each sentenced to life plus five years in prison.

In 1994, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld their convictions.

In 2009, James McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit organization that investigates wrongful convictions across the country, and investigator Paul Henderson began examining the case. Jones’s mother, Deborah McGill, sent numerous boxes of files, transcripts, and records from the case.

In 2010, McCloskey and Seattle lawyer Peter Camiel, who was the lead attorney on the case, filed a public records request and received the police file in the case. They discovered a police report of an interview conducted in the Yamacraw Village public housing project in Savannah at 1 a.m.—more than two hours after Lucci, Gardiner, and Jones were taken into police custody.

A witness reported that white men with military style haircuts and semiautomatic weapons were driving around in two vehicles—a white Chevrolet pick-up truck and a silver Ford Thunderbird—and “threaten(ing) to shoot blacks who hang out on street corners.”

In addition, in 2011, White recanted his identifications of Jones and Gardiner. He provided a sworn affidavit saying that he identified them at the preliminary hearing following pressure from members of the clergy and the police. He said he told police after the preliminary hearing that he didn’t know if Jones and Gardiner were the gunmen. Police, however, threatened to prosecute him for perjury, and said that he would be sent to prison and never see his six children again if he did not identify the defendants.

White said in his affidavit that the police told him “these soldiers had been on a rampage killing black people around town and that there would be race riots” if he did not identify Lucci, Gardiner, and Jones and they were acquitted. White said he relented and identified them at the trial.

“I was in a state of shock and very shaken,” White said in the affidavit in describing his state of mind after the shooting. He said he saw “fire coming from at least one weapon. In the few seconds I observed the shooters, I was focused on the weapons and the muzzle flashes. I thought I was in a war zone. I only got a quick glance of their profile…Because of the darkness and the distance between me and the car, I couldn’t see the facial features of the shooters very clearly.”

White told McCloskey and Henderson that he had suffered from mental and physical health problems in the ensuing years as a result of giving false testimony.

In October 2011, separate petitions for a writ of habeas corpus were filed on behalf of Lucci, Gardiner, and Jones. The petitions, which were consolidated, sought to vacate their convictions based on the failure of the prosecution to disclose the report from Yamacraw Village as well as White’s affidavit saying police coerced him to identify Gardiner and Jones.

Two months later, in December 2011, Chatham County Superior Court Chief Judge Perry Brannen Jr. denied the petitions, ruling they were procedurally defaulted.

Another set of writs was filed in 2012 in Wheeler County where Jones, Gardiner, and Lucci were imprisoned. Judge Sarah Wall denied those writs as well.

Lucci, Gardiner, and Jones appealed. In 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court remanded the petitions back to the trial court for a hearing on the claims that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence favorable to the defendants. At the hearing, witnesses testified that Wallace, the fellow soldier who testified that Jones said he was going to shoot a black man, actually told at least four different versions of the conversation.

In 2016, Judge Wall again denied the petitions, ruling that the Yamacraw Village police report would not have been admissible at trial and therefore did not have to be disclosed to the defense. The court rejected the defense claim that the report could have been used to investigate and possibly develop other evidence favorable to the defendants.

Judge Wall also rejected White’s recantation, ruling that there was evidence presented at the trial that White initially said the car that Gardiner, Lucci, and Jones exited at the club “looked like” the car involved in the shooting. The court also said White’s recantation was not credible.

In November 2017, the Georgia Supreme Court by a 9-0 vote reversed Judge Wall’s ruling, vacated the convictions, and ordered a new trial.

While the court did not overturn the trial court’s finding relating to White’s recantation, it ruled that the prosecution had violated the defendants’ rights to a fair trial by failing to disclose the Yamacraw Village police report. The court noted that the report was found in the police file and that the trial prosecutor had testified during the post-conviction hearing that he had not been aware the report existed. The prosecutor, the court said, testified that had he been aware of it, he would have disclosed it or “been specific why I was withholding it.”

The court said that the Yamacraw Village report “clearly would have been helpful to the defense; it was evidence that others similar in appearance were threatening a racial attack similar to that alleged to have been suffered by Jackson, but three hours after his slaying, when the defendants were already in custody.”

The court noted that the attorneys who represented the defendants at trial testified that if they had been provided the report, they would have “followed up… [and] would have sought other residents of the area who might have witnessed or received the threats, argued to the jury that the fact that the defendants were in custody at the time meant that they could not have been those who committed the acts reported, and thus there were other potential assailants who the police had not sought.”

On December 20, 2017, Lucci, Gardiner, and Jones were released on bond pending a retrial. On July 12, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In May 2021, Governor Brian Kemp signed legislation that awarded $1 million in compensation each for Lucci, Jones and Gardiner.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/20/2018
Last Updated: 2/24/2022
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1992
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No