Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carlton Gary: The Columbus, Georgia Stocking Strangler

Reprieve Four Hours Before Death and a DNA Shocker

 

When authorities in 2007 first linked Gary to the 1975 Marion Fisher murder in Syracuse, N.Y., through DNA, prosecutors struggled to decide whether or not to charge him with the crime.

William Fitzpatrick
William Fitzpatrick
Soon after the discovery, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick decided to close the case without charging Gary after discussing it with Fisher's family, including her widower, who had once been a suspect. Fitzpatrick made this decision because he feared that transporting Gary to New York might give him a chance to escape.

Two years later, the state of Georgia set Gary's execution for December 16, 2009. He had been sentenced to die for the rapes and murders of three women: Martha Thurmond, 69, Florence Scheible, 89, and Kathleen Woodruff, 74. Fingerprints placed Gary at all three crime scenes but he claimed an accomplice raped and killed the women.

Just four hours before the execution was to occur, though, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a stay, ordering Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Robert Johnston to convene a hearing to consider Gary's request for DNA testing.

Julia Slater
Julia Slater
Before Judge Johnston could hold the hearing, Muscogee County District Attorney Julia Slater reached an agreement with Gary's attorneys on February 19, 2010, to have the Georgia Bureau of Investigation perform the tests.

Julia Slater stated, "I'm not scared of the tests. I'm not afraid of the results."

Jack Martin, one of Gary's lawyers, said, "We're happy that the state has agreed DNA testing should go forward. We hope a profile can be found from these items that can exonerate Mr. Gary."

The agreement was for tests on semen found in Thurmond and Woodruff as well as Jean Dimenstein, 71, a woman whom authorities believe he murdered but for whose murder he has never been tried. According to an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Bill Rankin, no DNA test was slated for semen found in Scheible "because prosecutors considered the sample unreliable."

The results for Woodruff were inconclusive. But the other results were shocking. The semen found in Dimenstein came from Gary but that found in Thurmond did not.

Prosecutor Slater said the results show that Gary was not framed since the DNA in Dimenstein as well as Fisher mean he is a serial murderer. Slater indicated that the startling DNA results would not lead to a fresh investigation. "At this point, I'm concentrating on Carlton Gary," she stated. "At this point, we're not entertaining a copycat theory." She added that her office would investigate the possibility that degradation or contamination invalidated the Thurmond test.

However, Martin points out that Gary was not convicted on the Dimenstein murder but of the Thurmond killing. "If they want to try him on [Dimenstein], try him on that," Martin says. "But you can't sentence him to death on a case he wasn't convicted of."

Martin also said, "The thing that is so frustrating is, for years, we have come up with evidence that was ignored. Why aren't they out there trying to solve the crime instead of desperately trying to hang onto the conviction?"

Carlton Gary in court
Carlton Gary in court
E.J. Covington, a retired GBI agent who headed the Stocking Strangler Task Force, supported the DNA testing. Writing in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bill Torpy reported that Covington believed "there was evidence that pointed to a second suspect that was not fully brought to light by the state."

After the tests, Covington commented, "I thought DNA would give a definitive answer. Ironically, it was positive in Jean Dimenstein and not in Mrs. Thurmond. Rather than make it crystal clear, it's muddied the water again."

Bruce Jordan, author of Murder in the Peach State, a book that devoted a chapter to the Columbus Stocking Strangler, was informed by a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the DNA results. "Wow," Jordan responded. "You just floored me." Jordan noted that Gary "was notorious for having another guy in his burglaries," implying that Thurmond might have been raped by Gary's accomplice.

As of this writing, the identity of the man who raped Martha Thurmond is unknown. Carlton Michael Gary remains on death row for three murders, of one of which DNA evidence may exonerate him, and uncharged in two murders to which DNA conclusively links him.

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