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Robert Wallace

Convicted by a jury and sentenced to death in 1980 for the murder of a police officer in Union Point, Georgia, Robert Lewis Wallace was granted new trial five years later because, without sufficient reason to do so, the jury had disregarded the testimony of psychiatrists who had found Wallace incompetent to stand trial. On retrial, however, Wallace’s lawyer presented a defense of justifiable homicide, with new evidence to support this version of events. After his four-day retrial, in which the defense adduced the new evidence that Wallace had acted in self-defense, the jury deliberated only two hours before finding Wallace not guilty.
Shortly after midnight on May 16, 1979, Union Point Police Officers Thomas Rowry and Michael Cook stopped 29-year-old Wallace for driving erratically. At the police station, a test showed that Wallace was legally intoxicated. When Cook and Rowry told him that he would be held in a cell for four hours before he could be released, Wallace pleaded not to be locked up. Then, as he was being led to a cell, he began wrestling with Cook and grabbed his service revolver.
According to the police version of what happened, Wallace shot Cook in the stomach, rendering him momentarily unconscious, and then fired at Rowry, wounding him in the neck. As Rowry ran out of a back door, Wallace shot at him again, but missed. At this point, Cook regained consciousness. Aiming at Cook, Wallace pulled the trigger again, but the weapon misfired. Wallace ran out the door, with both wounded officers in pursuit. Rowry collapsed and died, and Wallace escaped in a commandeered police car. He abandoned the car nearby and made his way to Atlanta, where he was captured three days later.
Wallace was indicted in Greene County, the jurisdiction in which the alleged murder occurred, but the trial was transferred to Baldwin County. The case was tried before a jury of eleven white jurors and one Black juror —Wallace and Rowry were Black—with Greene County Superior Court Judge Joseph B. Duke presiding. Wallace’s lawyers filed a special plea of insanity—an issue for the jury to decide.
Members of Wallace’s family told the jury that he had sniffed glue in his youth, that he had been incomprehensible in conversation, talking about multiple subjects at the same time, that he heard voices and other sounds, and that he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. Three psychiatrists who had examined Wallace concurred that he was a paranoid schizophrenic who experienced hallucinations, could not concentrate on any subject, and had psychosomatic physical ailments.
A tape of one psychiatric interview was played for the jury. When asked if he understood the charges against him, Wallace had replied, “You’re doing this interview hopefully so when you get through then I’ll be able to tell you—ask you for some of the same things I want to check out. Like a medical checkup and I have cold spots in the middle of my head for a report from the State Hospital. I don’t have bad nerves. I’m waiting for the papers to come back but I don’t want to get them involved and I got this thing in my face and my state-appointed lawyer was to take me to the doctor, and I haven’t been eating any pork.”
To counter the psychiatric testimony, the prosecution put four police officers and a prisoner on the stand, all of whom had observed Wallace’s behavior in jail. They said he seemed normal—talking, reading, writing letters, keeping his cell neat, and making his own phone calls. The jury found Wallace competent to stand trial. After the jury returned a verdict of guilty, Wallace was sentenced to death for murder, 20 years for aggravated assault, seven years for theft, and one year for drunk driving.
After exhausting appeals in the Georgia courts, Wallace’s appellate lawyers filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, which U.S. District Court Judge Wilbur D. Owens Jr. denied in 1984. The following year, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed this decision, holding that there had been “insufficient reason for the jury to disregard the unanimous opinions of psychiatric experts that the defendant was incompetent” and remanding the case for a new trial.
The second trial was held in June 1987 before a jury in Greene County, where the crime had occurred, and Judge William Prior. The racial composition of the jury this time was eleven Black jurors and one white juror—the reverse of the makeup of the first jury. Wallace’s new defense lawyer, Samuel (Chip) Atkins, did not ask for a competency hearing. Instead, Atkins opened by telling the jury that his client was “completely sane”—and also “a totally innocent man who has been waiting eight years to tell his story.”
Wallace took the stand in his own defense, testifying that Rowry had hit him twice in the head with a blackjack and that Cook had pulled his gun.  Fearing that Cook was going to shoot him, Wallace said he grabbed Cook’s hand and the gun discharged. A single bullet struck both Cook and Rowry. Forensic evidence established that only one shot had been fired—not three, as the police had alleged at the first trial. The jury took only two hours to acquit Wallace of the murder on June 4, 1987.
The jury did find Wallace guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol and of stealing the police car. For those offenses, Judge Prior sentenced him to time already served. He was released from custody on June 17, 1987. He was never in trouble with the law again, but his mental condition deteriorated until 10 years later, when he was reported to be totally incapacitated.
– Researched by James Tuohy
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1979
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct