The judge who denied a motion for a new trial for Guy William Heinze Jr., convicted in the murders of eight people, including his father, says there’s no reason to retry the case.
Brunswick Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Stephen Scarlett issued a 32-page order Thursday rejecting the motion from Heinze.
The ruling comes more than six years after Heinze received a sentence of life without parole for the killings in a mobile home at New Hope Plantation on U.S. 17 in August 2009.
Scarlett noted in his order that Heinze’s central argument relates to the removal of Juror No. 152 from the panel that decided his fate. Details behind the controversial removal became public in January 2019 when prosecutors responded to the defense’s second amended motion for new trial. Brunswick Judical Circuit Assistant District Attorney Thomas Buscemi wrote, “First came a note from the juror regarding Juror 152. … During discussion between the parties and the court, it was placed on the record that Juror 152 had a relationship with Heinze, that Juror 152’s wife was sitting with Heinze’s family in the audience, that Juror 152 winked at said family, and that Juror 152 disregarded the court’s instructions by discussing this case with non-jurors three times. …
“As deliberations continued, the court expressed frustration with Juror 152, saying, ‘And believe you me, if I felt...we could get rid of him, I’d get rid of him.’ … At that time the court referenced two notes sent by the jury which appear to address these issues. … Later in the deliberations, the court noted that there were problems occurring in the jury room. Specifically, the court explained that the jurors were tired and acting out. …
“The court additionally noted that ‘there’s some conflict between 152 and the foreperson. And apparently it got heated in there….’ In response, the court excused the jury for dinner. … An ex parte hearing was conducted with the court, the contents of which are sealed.”
Following the hearing, defense attorneys and prosecutors worked out a deal in which the court would dismiss Juror 152 in exchange for the district attorney dropping any intention to seek the death penalty.
Scarlett, recounting the details of what police found at the scene of the crime, wrote that while the only blood on Heinze was a smear on his cargo shorts, officers retrieved a 16-gauge shotgun from the trunk of his car covered in blood that testing revealed belonged to Russell Toler Sr., one of the victims.
Police also found a Heinze thumbprint in the blood.
Also in the car was victim Michelle Toler’s mobile phone, which was covered in victim Joe West’s blood. Prescription painkillers belonging to victim Michael Toler were discovered in Heinze’s system at the time.
Blood on Heinze’s shorts and sandals led back to Russell Toler Sr., Chrissy Toler, Guy Heinze Sr. and West. A blood smear on a bedroom drawer in the residence was Russell Toler Sr.’s, but found in it were a fingerprint and a palm print belonging to Heinze.
Evidence presented showed the only people that could have been in the residence around the time of the killings were the victims and Heinze, Scarlett wrote.
He said the evidence to convict was sufficient, the jury’s verdict followed the law, and Heinze failed to carry the heavy burden of proving ineffectiveness of counsel.
Scarlett wrote, “While it may be implied that Heinze is referring to the agreement to remove Juror 152 in exchange for the state’s withdrawal of the death penalty, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the position that this strategic decision made by Heinze’s legal team was unreasonable in any way, especially under the factual circumstances of this case.
“Moreover, Heinze himself agreed to it after consultation with his legal team.”
Scarlett disclosed in detail a number of the issues with Juror 152, beyond his closeness to Heinze, which the juror admitted.
One of the deputies chaperoning the jury said Juror 152 told him on the second day that “there was absolutely no way I can convict this gentleman, there is no evidence against him.”
On the fourth day of trial, the juror told the deputy that before the trial started he talked with a California homicide detective to get “his advice on how to rate the trial.”
The deputy also testified he heard Juror 152 repeatedly talk about the case with his wife after instructed not to discuss the matter with anyone.
Scarlett contends Heinze benefitted from his defense team working with prosecutors to replace Juror 152, as it likely saved Heinze’s life.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson said the ruling was a long time coming for what she termed the worst murder case in the county’s history. She called the order a big win for the county, adding she’s very confident the Supreme Court of Georgia will agree with the ruling on appeal.
Johnson noted that her office keeps up with the families of the victims. While the community might move forward after a jury’s verdict, the fallout from crimes like the mobile home park murders remains a part of the lives of surviving family members for years.