A Walker County judge heard motions concerning the resentencing of a man convicted more than two decades ago of murdering a woman in Walker County.
On Wednesday, Jan. 7, Walker County Superior Court judge Jon “Bo” Wood went through previous and new motions placed by the defense.
The motions hearing was for James “Jamie” Ray Ward, who in 1991 was sentenced to death by a jury for the 1989 murder of Nikia “Niki” Gilbreath of LaFayette and her unborn son.
Gilbreath’s mother, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, said she was not happy to go through another trial to learn the fate of the man previously convicted for murdering her daughter some 25 years ago.
Ward’s death sentence was overturned because of alleged improper bailiff-jury communication during the trial. A juror reportedly asked a bailiff if a sentence of imprisonment for life without parole was an option and the bailiff allegedly responded that it was not an option.
The appeals court concluded that this exchange might have affected Ward’s constitutional right to a fair sentence.
Judges usually pass sentence following conviction in Georgia courts but that is not the case in a capital trial where the death sentence is sought. In such cases, a second trial follows to determine if the death is the appropriate punishment.
The 11th Circuit overtuned Ward’s sentence several years ago and only his death sentence will be retried. The jury determination of guilt is not being questioned.
But whenever a death sentence is reversed, all evidence and trial transcripts of the original trial can be challenged by the convicted felon and anything that was raised during trial can be revisted.
A new jury selected for the sentencing trial must be able to review all mitigating factors that led to the original conviction and sentence.
Several motions were made Wednesday, including a defense motion for change of venue.
The defense argued Ward could not have a fair trial due to years of pervasive publicity related to the crime and subsequent trial.
Another motion requested that Ward be allowed to view evidence. His defense attorneys argued that they have yet to see any evidence against Ward as numerous requests for that evidence have been ignored.
The defense will view the evidence, the judge ruled, but not in Ward’s presence as he is not allowed to see or handle any evidence.
His attorneys said their client would not be allowed to see or handle the evidence, but they would want to be able to ask Ward questions about the evidence while he was present in the same room.
Instead, it was ordered that Walker County sheriff’s deputies will hold Ward on the same floor of the courthouse though he will not be allowed to be in the room with the evidence. The defense instead must question Ward while he remains outside the room where the evidence is being reviewed.
Another motion called for the introduction of Ward’s prior death sentence being kept from the jury.
Judge Wood instructed the court that two days have been set aside for pre-trial motions. He said the two sides should discuss the hearing dates on motions that require evidence and have good faith with one another for a trial date to be set.
The motion hearings will continue at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Ward was in his early 30s and living in LaFayette when he met Gilbreath while he was helping well workers on the family’s 40 acres of farmland in 1989.
Gilbreath, five months pregnant with a son, and her mother had been planning a trip to Florida that would permit Gilbreath’s daughter Amber, then 22 months old, to see the beach for the first time before her little brother Garrett was born. They had planned to leave for the trip after work on Thursday, Aug. 17, 1989.
Instead, authorities claim that earlier that morning Ward hid in Gilbreath’s house until her husband Joe left for work and then kidnapped his victim.
Joe Gilbreath came home from work to find Amber alone in the home and his wife’s car missing, officials said.
Search parties were mobilized that August evening and helicopters using infrared sensors searched for the missing woman over a 50-mile radius.
Several days later, a man picking up cans found the victim’s body at an illegal dumpsite located between Villanow and LaFayette.