An Elbert County Superior Court jury recently returned a guilty verdict on a four-count indictment that included second-degree murder and manslaughter against an Elberton woman in the death of her infant.
Then the "13th Juror" set aside the verdict.
Northern Circuit Superior Court Judge Harvey Wasserman used a statute known as the "13th juror" to immediately grant the defendant a new trial, effectively dismissing the guilty verdict.
Parks White, the district attorney for the Northern Judicial Circuit, recently said he plans to appeal the judge's ruling to an appellant court.
White said he disagrees with the ruling that in effect struck down a unanimous decision agreed upon by 12 people chosen to decide the case based on the evidence.
The idea behind the rarely used statue, White said, is to reserve it for "the most unique and exclusive occasions where the weight of evidence is in sharp contrast to the verdict. It's hard to imagine how that would be if you've convinced 12 people - who are all strangers - of someone's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
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A news report by The Reveal hosted by WXIA-TV in Atlanta reported in 2020 that district attorneys statewide are frustrated with judges increasingly using the statute because the prosecutors feel the judges are "undermining the public trust in the justice system."
Under this rule of law, a judge is allowed to reverse a jury's conviction after the judge names themselves the 13th juror, according to the report.
A similar case occurred in 2018 in Barrow County, where a judge granted a new trial for Lamar Paul Hamilton of Winder. Hamilton was convicted by a jury for the murder of his adopted son in 2015. He was 75 at the time of the slaying.
Piedmont Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brad Smith said Thursday that the case is still pending and will be retried.
White plans to seek a retrial in his case as well.
"I have respect for everything judges can do. I just take issue with having one person say the judgment of 12 individuals is wrong," White said.
During the trial of Carrie Jill Peppers, 32, of Elberton, Wasserman told lawyers during the trial process that he was going to direct a verdict, but he still allowed the case to go before the jury, according to White. After the verdict was read, Wasserman invoked the rule and set aside their decision.
Peppers was charged in the May 2020 death of her son, who was less than 2 months old. The child died at their home, which was without water or electricity, according to White.
The ultimate cause of death was undetermined, White said, but the autopsy showed there was nothing medically wrong with the child.
"Suffocation caused by close sleeping does not leave a postmortem artifact," the prosecutor said about the case that was tried by two of his assistants.
But the evidence, White contends, shows the defendant fell asleep on top of her child and blood stain patterns on her sleeves matched the blood flow coming out of the child's mouth, he said.
Defense attorney Jim Smith of Athens said the state's medical examiner and a medical examiner that he hired from Kentucky both could not say what caused the death of the child.
"There is no evidence of rollover of of her squeezing the baby. None. Zero," Smith said.
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Smith defended the judge's ruling saying Wasserman "granted a new trial because there was insufficient evidence to justify a verdict of guilty." The judge told the lawyers earlier during the trial that he planned to issue a directed verdict of not guilty, but changed his mind, according to Smith.
Smith said the jury was "speculating" when it reached its guilty verdict.
At the time of the child's death, the defendant was also under the influence of methamphetamine, White said. Meth is a "stimulus that will cause you to stay up hours and hours and hours, and at the conclusion you will crash," he said.
However, Smith said his client had only a small amount of meth in her system.
Law enforcement body cam footage was shown during the trial, White said, in which Peppers can be heard saying that "she messed up over and over again and it was her fault."
"She knew it was her fault and that was pretty impactful on the jury," the prosecutor said.
This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Judge invokes 13th juror statute in Elbert County infant death trial