THOMASVILLE -- A former Thomas County man who escaped the death penalty five years ago heard a judge deny his motion for a new trial Tuesday.
Judge L.A. McConnell's denial -- at the end of a 30-minute hearing -- was on two grounds presented by the defense. He reserved ruling on a third.
The death penalty was sought in the August 1999 trial of Michael David Griffin, who was convicted of murder and kidnapping with bodily harm in the death of Jenny Rhames, 28, his ex-common law wife, mother of his two children, then 4 and 6.
Rhames disappeared July 3, 1991, after she went to Griffin's mobile home to leave her dog while she traveled to Florida to visit a hospitalized sister. Her charred, headless skeleton was found more than three months later in woods off Interstate 95 in McIntosh County on the Georgia coast.
The Thomas County mobile home was found burned the day after Rhames' disappearance. The fire was deliberately set. Rhames' disabled car was parked in the yard.
Griffin was tried for the death in McIntosh County. A mistrial resulted. He later was indicted in Thomas County for the death.
The Thomas County jury that convicted Griffin recommended two life prison terms, rather than the death penalty.
Griffin, 51, a prisoner in the state penal system, attended the Tuesday hearing.
He entered the Thomas County Courthouse third-floor courtroom chewing gum, wearing an orange Thomas County Jail uniform, ankles shackled. He sometimes shook his head during the hearing, signifying that he did not agree with what was being said.
Jon Forehand of Moultrie, one of Griffin's court-appointed lawyers, said the motion for a new trial was based on three general grounds:
Evidence did not support the verdict.
Errors of law by the court by denying directed verdicts of acquittal and by not merging murder and kidnapping charges.
McConnell, a Perry Superior Court judge who presides at trials statewide in which the death penalty is sought, reserved ruling on the merger motion.
"Otherwise, I'm going to deny the motion for a new trial on the other grounds," the judge said at the end of the hearing.
Prior to the ruling, Forehand argued that a prosecution expert witness testified at the 1999 trial he could not determine the cause of Rhames' death.
The defense contended Tuesday that Griffin and Rhames argued at the mobile home, he struck her, she fell, hit her head and died. Griffin panicked.
Neither did the state prove kidnapping with bodily injury, Forehand told McConnell.
"There has to be some proof the victim was alive when she was moved from one place to another, however slight," Forehand said.
The prosecution's '99 witness could not say where death occurred, he explained.
One of the prosecution's witnesses, he said, was a convicted bank robber incarcerated with Griffin. The witness heard voices to which he responded, had multiple personalities and took a lot of medication -- "clearly mentally ill," Forehand argued.
Jim Hardy, Thomasville-based Southern Judicial Circuit chief assistant district attorney, told the court Rhames' head was severed, and her arms were cut from her body.
"He cut her head off and dismembered her body," Hardy told the judge.
Before law enforcement knew about the mobile home fire, Griffin called Rhames' mother and asked her if the blaze had been discovered.
Moultrie attorney Thomas Kerbo, also Griffin's court-appointed legal counsel, argued that the "only basis" for Rhames' missing head was that animals carried it away, along with the victim's hands. Small finger bones would have become lost in dirt, he explained.
After McDonnell's ruling, Forehand had no comment, other than to say he is awaiting the judge's decision on merging charges.
Hardy declined to comment while the judge's decision is pending.
Jeanette Rhames, the victim's mother, said her family has suffered for 13 years and continues to do so.
She is glad the judge is taking time to consider all aspects of the motion for a new trial.
"The suffering will never end," Rhames said.
Rhames and seven other members of the victim's family stood nearby and watched silently as Thomas County Sheriff's Department officers led Griffin, whose hands were shackled to a wide leather band circling his waist, down exterior courthouse stairs, across the front lawn and North Broad Street to a vehicle that transported him back to the local jail.
Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 220.
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