A judge delayed the execution of an inmate set to die on Wednesday for a woman's 1994 murder to give the condemned man's legal team more time to study newly-discovered evidence.
Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette's decision on Tuesday throws the execution of Marcus Ray Johnson into doubt. The order halts the execution until after a Feb. 1 hearing on the case, but prosecutors said they plan to urge Georgia's top court to quickly overturn the ruling.
Johnson's execution date was announced hours after Troy Davis was put to death in a case that sparked an international outcry because several witnesses disputed the testimony that helped convict him of killing a Savannah police officer in 1989.
Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said he was "100 percent sure" that Johnson raped and killed Angela Sizemore outside an Albany nightclub in March 1994. Johnson was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death four years later, and appeals courts have repeatedly upheld the sentence.
"We certainly disagree with the judge's ruling," said Edwards. "We believe the jury has spoken and that the evidence is clear."
But Johnson's legal team said in court filings there were "troubling inconsistencies" in the evidence presented at the trial, and raised questions about eyewitness statements that linked him to the crime.
Defense attorney Brian Kammer urged Lockette on Tuesday to order DNA testing on samples collected at the scene that he said could exonerate his client, including saliva, fingernail clippings and several hairs.
The judge stopped short of granting the request, but delayed the execution to give his lawyers and their expert witnesses more time to examine whether the samples had materials that could be tested.
Sizemore and Johnson were at an Albany nightclub called Fundamentals the night of March 23, 1994 when witnesses spotted them kissing in one of the booths and drinking heavily. They were last seen together leaving the bar early the next morning, walking toward a bar where Johnson had worked.
The next day, a man walking his dog discovered her battered body inside her white SUV parked behind an Albany apartment complex. She had been stabbed 41 times with a small, dull knife and suffered severe internal injuries when she was sexually assaulted with a pecan tree branch.
Police quickly focused on Johnson, and two witnesses told investigators they saw Johnson walking from the area where the victim's SUV was parked. He was arrested less than 24 hours after the killing.
Johnson told authorities he led Sizemore to a grassy vacant lot where they had consensual sex, and that he then "kind of lost it" and punched her in the face during an argument. But Johnson said he immediately left after the argument and headed home to collapse on his front yard, where he woke up the next morning. He insisted that he did not kill her.
DNA testing matched the victim's blood to Johnson's leather jacket, and authorities said his pocketknife matched the wounds discovered on her body. He also had scratches on his hands, arms and neck. But Johnson's lawyers say he wasn't involved in the brutality that claimed her life. They say investigators never found her blood on his knife, and only trace amounts of blood on his jacket.
At the hearing Tuesday, state attorneys urged Lockette to reject Johnson's request. They said similar requests had already been turned down by appeals courts, and that the results of any DNA tests would still prove Johnson was guilty of the crime.
But the judge seemed concerned by a document Johnson's attorneys filed Friday that said the Albany Police Department had recently produced a "new, never before seen box of physical evidence" that contained several items defense lawyers tried to locate and examine since 2001. He said a delay would give Johnson's team time to "examine and evaluate the evidence in the case" before the hearing can be continued.