In the early morning of May 7, 1971, two pathologists, Drs. Warren and Rosina Matthews, were murdered in their home in Marietta, Georgia. Police were called to the Matthews’ house by a neighbor who had heard gunshots and screaming. Finding both Warren and Rosina Matthews dead, police also found some evidence of a robbery, as well as fingerprints, a bloody handprint, and spent bullets from three different guns.
Police had made little substantive progress in solving the crime until they arrested a woman named Deborah Ann Kidd on shoplifting charges in late July 1972. Kidd, who had a lengthy criminal history, claimed that she had information on the murder of the Warren and Rosina Matthews and offered to provide it to police in exchange for immunity. Her request for blanket immunity was granted, and she then implicated herself and nine other individuals in the murders. These other individuals were Charles Roberts, James Creamer, George Emmett, Larry Hacker, Billy Richard Jenkins, Carolyn Sue Bowling Johnson, Mary Ann Morphus, James Hoyt Powell, and Alton Wayne Ruff. The seven men in this group, sometimes referred to as the “Marietta Seven,” were prosecuted, and the three women were not.
Kidd claimed that Creamer was the person who had shot and killed the Matthewses. She stated that during the course of the crime, Creamer had been shot by Rosina Matthews as well. Creamer admitted that he had a bullet in his back, but claimed it was from a different and unrelated crime. At the time of Creamer’s arrest, a search warrant was sought to surgically remove the bullet from his body to determine whether it came from Rosina Matthews’ gun or otherwise matched the bullets found at the scene of the crime. The warrant was granted and the trial court ordered that the necessary surgery be performed to remove the bullet from Creamer’s body. Creamer appealed this decision, but the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the ruling in September 1972. The surgery was performed and the bullet was removed, but it did not match any bullets from the crime scene or Dr. Matthews’ gun.
Deborah Ann Kidd’s testimony served as the primary evidence against each of the Marietta Seven. She claimed that she was James Creamer’s girlfriend at the time of the crime, and that the murders began as an armed robbery, committed by the group of ten after the use of drugs and alcohol. She also testified that several hypnosis sessions had been used to help her more clearly remember the events of the crime. All seven defendants were convicted over the course of five trials that took place between 1973 and 1975. After one mistrial, Roberts was the last of the seven to be convicted. Roberts and five of his co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison, while Creamer was sentenced to death.
The stories told by Kidd at the various trials were not only inconsistent with one another, they were also inconsistent with the known facts of the crime. Following the trial, reporters for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and appellate attorneys representing members of the group discovered an array of suppressed exculpatory evidence. This included evidence that Kidd had given several versions of events prior to the trials, each of which drastically contradicted the stories she told at trial. The reporters also learned that Kidd had stayed for several weeks at the home of one of the police detectives and had a sexual relationship with him during that time. One of the appellate attorneys then sent an investigator to look into Kidd’s past and learned that she was in Greenville, South Carolina on the day that she claimed to have been involved in murdering the Matthewses.
Based on the suppressed evidence that had been uncovered, Creamer and Emmett sought habeus corpus relief in federal court. United States District Judge Charles Moye overturned the convictions of Emmett and Creamer on June 17, 1975. His highly critical opinion overturning this “pair of criminal convictions so manifestly and fundamentally unfair that they must be vacated,” stated that:
The prosecutorial suppression of nearly all evidence concerning Deborah Kidd resulted in a criminal proceeding that bordered on the Kafkaesque…the extreme measures to which the state resorted in extracting information from (or more accurately, in supplying information to) this witness and the use of her testimony at trial, the failure to pursue important leads in the case, the suppression of documents, the firing of police officers skeptical of Kidd’s story, all raise grave questions regarding the single-minded zeal with which these convictions appear to have been sought and obtained.”
Shortly after these convictions were overturned, Billy Sunday Birt, a convicted murderer, contacted Cobb County authorities to confess that he, along with Billy Wayne Davis and Willie Hester, had killed Rosina and Warren Matthews. Birt was already on death row at the time of his confession, and Billy Wayne Davis was in prison as well. Willie Hester was not apprehended. In August 1975, Kidd admitted that she had lied in her testimony with regard to the Matthews’ murder. On September 2, 1975, the Cobb County district attorney, George “Buddy” Darden, announced he was dropping all charges against the Marietta Seven.
At the time of his release, Roberts said “we’ve claimed all along we’re innocent and people are now beginning to believe that we were telling the truth.” His post-release plans included marrying the fiancée who had stayed by his side during his time in prison, advocating for penal reform, and opening a shop to sell leather goods made by prisoners.
In January 1976, Billy Sunday Birt and Billy Wayne Davis were charged with the murders of Rosina and Warren Matthews, but a grand jury failed to indict them.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.