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Foster death penalty case to go to high court for review

The grainy video begins, showing a white house on Highland Circle in 1986.

Moving around to the back of the house, the mechanical zoom of the camera whirs as Mike Reynolds, the Rome police officer working the case, takes focus on a green luggage tag.

Someone broke into the house by prying out a wall-mounted air-conditioning unit, Reynolds said, scanning over to the black plastic used to cover the open window.

Reynolds pans the camera along a trail of small items, documenting each of them, until he finds several footprints leading to nearby Church Street.

His investigation began after the sister of 79-year-old Queen Madge White found her brutally beaten body in the bedroom of her Highland Circle home.

White had lived by herself at the home, retired after teaching for over 30 years. By all accounts she was loved by her friends, former co-workers and students.

On Aug. 27, 1986, at approximately 8:30 p.m., a friend took White to choir practice and brought her back to her home near the Coosa Valley Fairgrounds.

White spoke with her sister on the telephone around 9 p.m. The next morning, her sister discovered her body and called police.

Police arrived and began their investigation. They found White covered up to her chin by a blanket. Her face was covered in talcum powder. She had been badly beaten as well as sexually molested and strangled.

As Reynolds used the video camera to document the evidence in the ransacked house, he commented on what the investigators believed happened.

He also asked questions about what likely happened to White as crime lab personnel removed her body from the home.

Georgia high court review

One of the issues discussed in a Floyd County Superior Court hearing Tuesday concerning the retrial of the man originally convicted in White’s death was whether that video could be used as evidence.

Special 

The original indictment from 1986 in the Timothy Foster case. That conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.

Timothy Tyrone Foster, who is now 53, was sentenced to death in 1987 for White’s murder.

But Foster appealed the case a number of times on the state level and it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.

The high court cited Batson v. Kentucky in its ruling that the Floyd County district attorney at that time had struck Black jurors from the trial on the basis of their race.

Timothy Tyrone Foster

After his conviction was overturned, Foster was brought to the Floyd County Jail in March 2017 from Georgia’s death row in Jackson. In 2018, the state expressed its intent to seek the death penalty and the process to try him for murder began again.

There will be some difficulties presenting the 35-year-old case for trial. Original case files have been lost, only copies remain, and many of the witnesses have died or are experiencing health issues.

Hearing

Reynolds, the police officer who took video of the crime scene, died in 2020. He’d retired as a captain of the Rome Police Department in 2004.

During a pre-trial hearing Tuesday, prosecutors and Foster’s attorneys presented arguments about what pieces of evidence should be admissible in the trial.

Arguing that the video should not be admitted, one of Foster’s attorneys, Shayla Galloway, said the lead investigator’s speculation could lead jurors astray.

“This isn’t just anybody,” Galloway told the court. “This is the person running the show. That’s problematic to me.”

Floyd County Superior Court Judge William “Billy” Sparks told the attorneys he intends to allow the video but may determine that portions of Reynolds’ assessment of the evidence be removed.

Other items discussed Tuesday included statements from White’s family members, which would be introduced in the sentencing phase of the case if Foster is again convicted.

Death penalty cases in Georgia have two phases, the trial phase and the sentencing phase. The sentencing phase is a mini-trial in and of itself and is when jurors will determine if the defendant is sentenced to death.

John Bailey, File 

In this January 2021 file photo, Lisa Stubbs testifies in a pre-trial hearing for Timothy Tyrone Foster in Floyd County Superior Court. Stubbs was dating Foster in 1986 and led police to items Foster is accused of stealing from the home of Queen Madge White when she was killed.

The court has heard hundreds of motions in this iteration of the Foster case in a series of hearings since 2018. The hearing Tuesday was the last one before the case is sent to the Georgia Supreme Court for review.

Review

If the high court decides to review several questions it may be another year or two before the case comes to trial. If not, the age of the case gives it precedence.

“If the Supreme Court doesn’t take this case we’re going to try this case in the beginning of next year,” Judge Sparks told the attorneys.

Among those questions sent up for review is a defense motion regarding a claim of Foster’s intellectual disability.

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This clipping of the 1993 article from the Rome News-Tribune concerning a challenge to the original conviction of Timothy Tyrone Foster.

Foster’s attorneys argued that, while he was 18 when the murder was committed, his intellectual disabilities meant he was not functioning as an adult at the time.

Floyd County Assistant District Attorney Kevin Salmon earlier argued that a civil jury ruled 20 years ago that Foster did not suffer from a mental disability that would prohibit the state from imposing the death sentence.

On that issue, Sparks ruled the case could move forward.

Other questions that will be sent to the high court concern a motion seeking to bar the death penalty as well as other motions filed by Foster’s defense team.

Near the end of the hearing, Sparks asked Foster directly if he had any objections or issues with the performance of his counsel.

Foster declined to answer the question.


Local
Landmarking committee wants Forrest statue in Rome Area History Center

A special landmarking committee, created a year ago by the Rome City Commission, has unanimously agreed to put the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue inside the Rome Area History Center on Broad Street.

The statue of the Confederate general was removed from Myrtle Hill Cemetery in January and has been in storage ever since.

During the Tuesday discussion Ann Pullen, a member of the committee, asked if there was any reason that the statue couldn’t just stay in storage indefinitely.

Attorney Frank Beacham explained that Georgia Code 50-3-1 sets strict standards for removing a statue from public display. It might be a valid argument that keeping it in storage was preserving it and protecting it, he said, “but I don’t think you meet the ‘interpret’ part of it. It’s preserve, protect and interpret.”

Mayor Craig McDaniel stressed that whatever the group decided, it needs to be based on sound legal basis.

“It needs to have a legal basis or the city can’t defend it,” McDaniel said.

When the idea of putting the statue in the history center was first brought up, structural engineers were called in to determine if the flooring in the historic building on Broad Street could hold the weight of the monument.

Engineers gave the green light and Director Selena Tilly said the statue would be part of an exhibit placed over a pylon that provides additional support.

The location will include interpretive signage, to be developed by another special committee.

That display will detail a full history of the Confederate States of America general. Forrest played a key role in defending Rome during the Civil War, but he also was involved in atrocities against Black American soldiers both during and after the war.

“If someone wants to go in and see it and read and hear or whatever, it’s up to them,” committee member Sam Malone said.

Tilly said the history center would be able to tell the whole story of Forrest. However, the wording will be left up to the citizens’ Interpretation Committee, which includes Malone, Timothy Pitts, Faye Hicks, Hugh Durden and Jeff Brown.

The sixth member of that panel, Jim Belzer, has passed away and has yet to be replaced by the city commission.


Milan Sanchez-Lopez, West End Elementary School


Local
Floyd County elections clerk position reposted

The Floyd County Chief Elections Clerk position has been reposted on job websites following some revisions to the original description.

County commissioners stated the hiring process didn’t cast a wide enough net for applicants and declined the elections board’s original recommendation.

The advertisement was reposted late last week in a variety of outlets. After realizing they posted it in the same locations as in 2018 — when the job was more clerical than managerial — elections board members and county administrators decided to expand the search.

Now, the job is posted on RomeFloyd.org, RomeGa.com, Indeed.com, ElectionCenter.org, glga.org and on Firefly, which is the portal for the Georgia secretary of state’s office.

Elections Board Chair Melanie Conrad said board members will also be reaching out on LinkedIn.com to prospective applicants who currently work in elections.

One of the concerns commissioners and residents had about the original posting was the requirement that the applicant already be certified as a Georgia election official. According to the Georgia secretary of state’s office, an elections official has to be certified within six months of being hired.

While County Attorney Virginia Harman said that the board of elections was within legal limits to have the requirement, board members decided to make prior certification a “preferred qualification,” instead of a requirement.

There was a brief discussion on hiring a headhunter for the job, but elections board members and county officials decided to forgo the option, saying the companies they would have used don’t do election searches.

Under the job posting, the chief elections clerk would have a salary range of $44,774 to $71,639.

The applicant must have a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration or a closely related field and at least three years of experience as a public elections and registration official or an equivalent combination of education and experience.

The position will be posted for 10 days, which will bring the board to their monthly meeting on Aug. 10.

During the meeting, board members plan to go into a closed session to discuss the applicants and determine if they have a “viable pool.” If they don’t, the position will remain posted for up to 30 days.


Local
2017 SPLOST collections running well ahead of budget

Collection of the 2017 special purpose, local option sales tax is slated to run through the end of March 2024 and was budgeted to total $63.8 million. As of the end of July, SPLOST collections totaled $38.3 million, about $9.5 million ahead of budget.

The July amount alone was about half a million dollars ahead of projections, Floyd County Finance Director Susie Gass told members of the Rome Floyd County Joint Services Committee on Tuesday.

“Hopefully we will continue to do well,” Gass said. “We’ve had a (previous) SPLOST that was under-collected and so I think we all have that in the back of our mind. But so far we’re looking good.”

Project updates

City Manager Sammy Rich started the project update with a 2013 project that is still on the books — the stabilization of the riverbank at the confluence of the rivers. A canoe and kayak launch will be a new addition to that project.

Doug Walker 

Work to stabilize the riverbank at the confluence of the rivers downtown, Unity Point Park, could start sometime this fall. The work is being funded by a $1.8 million earmark in the 2013 SPLOST.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get that to a bid phase soon,” Rich said.

One of the next big projects the city will undertake is the construction of a new pavilion in Parks Hoke Park in South Rome. The project will include restrooms and is expected to be put out for bid soon.

A new access road to East Central Elementary School should get underway soon. A contract has been awarded to Wilson Boys Enterprises out of metro Atlanta. The project will significantly improve traffic flow on Dean Street in the morning and mid-afternoon when completed.

Bids will be opened Aug. 12 for engineering design services associated with the streetscape project in the River District, North Fifth Avenue and West Third Street.

Floyd County Manager Jamie McCord said the airport runway extension project, a 2013 SPLOST project, is rolling along well after it was divided into three phases in an effort to get more competitive bids.

Grading for the 1,000 foot extension is approximately 75% complete. The second phase will include the Instrument Landing System and electronics package, followed by the actual base and paving. Original bids for the whole project in 2016 were about $4 million over budget.

By chopping it up and getting more competition, McCord said the goal of coming in on budget is a reachable goal.

Olivia Morley 

A Bartow Paving Co. crew works on the drainage portion of the Floyd County airport runway extension project on Friday, July 16, 2021.

The jail medical wing renovations, funded through both the 2013 and 2017 SPLOSTs, have been a priority for the county. McCord said the project is about 95% complete and should be finished sometime in September.

The big ticket item in the 2017 SPLOST package, an $8 million agriculture center, is still in the site selection process.

The county has narrowed that down to about three sites and hopes to acquire one of them by the end of the year or early next year. McCord did not identify the three sites under consideration.

The Forum and new websites

The Joint Services Committee also got updates on the Forum River Center and new websites for the city and county.

The Forum was just about ready to reopen for normal use when the latest wave of COVID-19 infections started to accelerate. But Floyd County Superior Court Chief Judge John Niedrach decided last week to return court activity to the large venue.

McCord said he plans to meet Friday with Niedrach and Sheriff Dave Roberson to determine how much space is going to be needed and what the security needs will be. They’ll then determine if and when the Forum might be able to host other events moving forward.

A new city website, RomeGa.us, will be activated Aug. 30 while a new county website has not been disclosed. 

The county website will be FloydCountyGa.gov. The joint site that has been used for several years will remain active but with links to the new pages that more clearly define functions within the two governments.

The committee also discussed development of a new master plan for the Parks and Recreation Department. A call for bids was posted more than a year ago but, largely due to the pandemic, that process hasn’t been completed.

Parks and Rec Director Todd Wofford said he hopes to have a master plan completed by October of next year.

“It would be a good exercise to go through,” McCord said, noting that the process would be similar to how the Unified Land Development Code is being updated.

“It gets out into the community, it gets community input, we ask them what they want and then evaluate it. We probably need to do that sooner than later,” McCord said.


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