Man's murder conviction overturned after he spent 12 years in prison

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

A Georgia man, who has served 12 years of his lifetime murder sentence, is entitled to a new trial after the state's Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

Derrick Cartwright of Columbus was previously found guilty of murdering Kevin Stafford on April 3, 2006. However, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that his trial lawyer and appeals attorney failed to present evidence contradicting a police officer's testimony that was deemed crucial to the jury's decision.

Stafford was shot in the neck around 4 a.m. at Sixth Avenue and 35th Street before he crashed his car as he tried to drive away. He was taken to a hospital, where he later died.

A witness who lived on 6th Avenue told police she saw Cartwright shoot Stafford after asking, “Where is my $40 (expletive)?” He turned himself in on April 26 and was indicted on charges of malice murder, felony murder based on aggravated assault, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

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Cartwright’s trial lasted four days in 2007, and prosecutors had four eyewitnesses who said they saw him shoot Stafford. However, their testimony was inconsistent, and the defense challenged their credibility, citing that two had felony drug convictions and a third was facing felony charges at the time. One of the witnesses also admitted to using cocaine right before the shooting took place.

Five defense witnesses testified that Cartwright was asleep on the couch in his family’s apartment the night Stafford was shot. Cartwright blamed the shooting on an alleged cocaine dealer who testified against him.

Detective Andrew Tyner, who interviewed Cartwright after he was arrested, was a crucial prosecution witness, saying Cartwright never mentioned an alibi after his arrest. Tyner’s testimony was never cross-examined, and prosecutors considered his testimony as “undisputed evidence” that Cartwright later made up his alibi.

A Muscogee County jury convicted Cartwright of felony murder, aggravated assault and using a gun to commit a crime, prompting his life sentence. The jury noted that the case was “close” and hinged on witness credibility.

However, the lead police investigator, Bernard Spicer, testified during Cartwright’s 2006 preliminary hearing that Tyner had told him the suspect did have an alibi. Cartwright’s defense attorney never called Spicer to the witness stand to refute Tyner’s testimony, and a second defense attorney also failed to call Spicer to testify during his initial appeals.

During a 2012 appeal, this led the state Supreme Court to rule that, “Cartwright has failed to establish a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have become different if Detective Spicer’s testimony had been introduced to impeach that of Detective Tyner.” Cartwright’s conviction was upheld.

In 2016, Cartwright filed a petition for habeas corpus, which is a civil action against the authority holding the defendant in custody. This was also denied by the state Supreme Court, citing that Cartwright didn’t testify during his original trial and only presented his alibi defense through his five witnesses.

Following that denial, Cartwright’s new attorney, J. Mark Shelnutt, filed an appeal that his appellate counsel and original defense attorney provided ineffective assistance, which was approved by the Georgia Supreme Court, effectively overturning his conviction.

The Georgia Supreme Court found that his “appellate counsel performed his duties in an objectively unreasonable way” and that his trial attorney “whiffed on this issue,” regarding cross-examining Tyner’s testimony and calling Spicer to the witness stand.

Because the prosecution relied so heavily on Tyner’s testimony to argue Cartwright fabricated his alibi, Spicer’s testimony might have led to a different verdict, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled.

Shelnutt told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer this means prosecutors will either have to try Cartwright again or seek some other resolution, such as a plea agreement.

Until then, Cartwright will still be held on the murder charge, but he may be granted bond by a Superior Court judge. Snelnutt told the newspaper a bond motion will be filed. District Attorney Julia Slater told the Ledger-Enquirer that her staff hasn’t decided whether to retry Cartwright.

Cartwright began serving his life sentence on June 14, 2007, and he remains in Wilcox State Prison in Abbeville, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

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