The judge in the murder case pending against Marc Wilson still has to decide whether testimony regarding prior actions by young men who were in the truck with shooting victim Haley Hutcheson – and especially about one who asserts his Fifth Amendment right not to testify – will be admissible at trial.
Defense motions to have such testimony and related evidence included, and legal arguments from the prosecution to exclude it, were the main substance of a hearing Thursday morning before Judge Ronald K. “Ronnie” Thompson in Bulloch County Superior Court. He is keeping the jury trial slated for June 27-July 1.
Meanwhile, Thompson has scheduled an additional motions hearing for May 12 and said he will rule on the already filed motions either that day “or right after.”
“I’m not telling you ahead of time what I’m going to allow and what I’m not going to allow, but I can tell you this, it’s not all coming in, because we have to focus on what happened that night,” he told the attorneys at one point during Thursday’s hearing.
He said he understands that Wilson has constitutional rights to due process, a fair trial and to be represented by counsel.
“However, there are some things we are bound under the rules of evidence by, and we’re going to look at those areas where the rules of evidence may or may not conflict with his constitutional rights,” Thompson continued.
Under a 2020 indictment, Wilson, now 23, is charged with one count of felony murder for the shot that killed Hutcheson, 17, plus five counts of aggravated assault for shooting at the pickup truck in which Hutcheson and four other teenagers were traveling along Statesboro’s U.S. Highway 301 bypass the night of June 13-14, 2020. He is also charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
During earlier hearings, the defense attorneys asserted that Wilson, who is biracial, and his then-girlfriend, Emma Rigdon, who is white, were subjected to racist aggression by occupants of the pickup truck, including attempts to run Wilson’s car off the road. Mason Glisson, identified as the driver of the truck, and other witnesses previously testified that the three young men were drinking and bought alcoholic beverages for the two young women.
At the time of the tragedy, all were under the legal drinking age of 21.
Conley’s pending cases
One of the young men, Luke Harry Conley, 18 then and now 20, of Claxton, had been arrested May 7, 2020 – five weeks before the night of Hutcheson’s death – by the Georgia State Patrol after an incident in Bulloch County.
The charges filed were hit and run (leaving the scene of an accident), driving under the influence (alcohol/less safe), underage possession of alcohol, open container, laying drag, tire requirements, speeding (60 in a 45 zone), improper turn and failure to obey traffic control devices.
Then on June 16, 2020, two days after Hutcheson’s death, Statesboro police arrested Conley on a charge of misdemeanor obstruction of law enforcement officers for, the warrant alleged, “providing false and misleading information related to a murder investigation.”
Both of those cases were filed in Bulloch County State Court, a different court from the Superior Court where the Wilson case is being heard.
As of this week, neither of the cases pending against Conley appears to have been brought to trial, one of Wilson’s defense attorneys, Martha Hall, said Thursday.
Still takes the Fifth
Conley has been asserting his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, where it could lead to self-incrimination, since the preliminary hearing in Wilson’s case in 2020. An attorney for Conley appeared in court Thursday and told the judge he would still decline to testify.
Both Thursday and during the earlier hearing on Wilson’s unsuccessful motion for immunity from prosecution under Georgia’s “stand your ground” law, his attorneys offered testimony from several individuals who reported violent or threatening actions by Conley in separate incidents in Claxton and Evans County from early fall 2019 to around January 2020.
In the earlier immunity hearing, Thompson heard testimony from some of those witnesses after first sending media reporters and other members of the public out of the courtroom. But Wilson’s lead attorney, Francys Johnson, then identified the witnesses during closing arguments of the immunity hearing.
Hall, who led in delivering the defense’s argument Thursday, also named additional witnesses to incidents involving Conley, as Thompson asked about the subpoenaed witnesses and the events to which they could testify.
Despite at least some of these incidents involving Conley being listed with “charges” in law enforcement agencies’ incident reports, Wilson’s attorneys had found no record of any convictions, or of the supposed charges having been prosecuted.
“No, Your Honor, there’s simply an incident report but no arrest of Mr. Conley, which is a consistent theme,” Hall said in response to the judge’s question about one the incidents.
Another of the incidents, as described by Hall, purportedly involved Conley, with some other young people, running someone off the road.
“Well, we’ve got a running off the road here,” Thompson said. “I’ll look really closely at that because it may be similar to what happened on the night in question.”
Most or all of the alleged targets of the earlier incidents were white, as Thompson noted by asking Hall their race. But he is also considering whether to allow purported evidence of “racial animus.”
Although Glisson was identified as the driver of the truck the night Hutcheson was killed, Hall referred to Conley as “the primary aggressor” in motivating the aggressive driving that Rigdon previously testified was directed against her and Wilson.
But Chief Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black, from the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit D.A.’s Office, called the proffered testimony about prior incidents “character attacks” against Conley, whom he referred to as a victim in this case.
Black noted Georgia’s adoption of a new code of evidence, as affirmed by the Supreme Court of Georgia in a February 2020 case. Citing the specific ruling and a law professor’s text, he stated that “character evidence of a victim is limited to character or opinion and not specific bad acts.”
Black further argued that Conley’s earlier actions were irrelevant, since Wilson did not know of those actions or Conley’s reputation.
“So, if he doesn’t know that Luke Conley’s been bad in the past – whether a lot of that happened or not – it could not possibly have been a factor in his decision to shoot Haley in the back of the head,” Black said.
However, Hall argued that Conley’s refusal to testify creates an exception.
“I don’t disagree with the fact that there is a provision of (the state law regarding evidence about a person’s character) that if he had knowledge of those things, it could come in,” Hall said. “What I’m saying is this is the exception because the primary aggressor is refusing to testify.”
Thompson indicated that he may allow evidence about an encounter at a Statesboro convenience store between the occupants of the truck and a young white woman they knew whom they saw there with a Black or biracial man the night of Hutcheson’s death. Defense attorneys have argued that teenagers in the truck directed racial animosity against Wilson and Rigdon after mistaking them for the other couple.