Ga.’s top court reverses ex-educator’s conviction
Eds: ADDS comments from Denson’s attorney.
By GREG BLUESTEIN
Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Prosecutors have little doubt Rodney Denson, an ex-assistant principal at a Fulton County middle school, shot his estranged wife six times. But a procedural error has forced Georgia’s top court to reverse his conviction.
Denson was sentenced to 22 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 to shooting and wounding his wife, Elletta Bailey, repeatedly as her three children were getting ready for school at their home in Fairburn.
The Georgia Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Monday, though, concluded there was a flaw in Denson’s court transcript: He was never advised that by pleading guilty he was waiving his right against self-incrimination.
Prosecutors now may decide to take the case to trial, or pursue another plea deal. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office did not immediately return phone calls, but in 2005 he declared the “viciousness of the attack is almost hard to imagine.”
“When an individual so utterly betrays the trust inherent in marriage and family life with this kind of inexplicable violence, justice demands a sentence such as the one handed down today,” Howard said then.
Denson, who worked at Kennedy Middle School, went to Bailey’s house around 5:30 a.m. on November 22, 2004, saying he wanted to talk to her. He soon began firing two handguns, striking Bailey six times, according to county prosecutors.
He then threatened to shoot his 16-year-old stepdaughter, relenting only when she cowered on the floor begging for her life, according to court documents.
Bailey survived, but was severely injured in the attack and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. “It is doubtful she will ever recover,” read the court’s ruling.
Shortly after the shootings, court records say Denson called several friends to confess. He soon pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and other charges and was sentenced in December 2005 to 22 years in prison and 13 years of probation.
Two years later, he appealed the sentence on grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he pleaded guilty. An appeals court dismissed the motion, but the Georgia Supreme Court ruling Monday reversed that decision.
The court said it was clear he was advised of two of his rights — the right to a jury and the right to confront the witnesses against him. But the court found it “equally clear” that Denson was not advised he was waiving his right against self-incrimination.
The court said it was relying on a 1969 Supreme Court decision that found a guilty plea must be set aside if there’s no evidence the defendant “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily” waived all the three rights.
“The state has pointed us to no extrinsic evidence from which we could conclude that Denson knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right against self-incrimination, and our own thorough review of the record has uncovered none,” read the opinion, penned by Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears.
State attorneys said they were discouraged by the decision.
“We are disappointed when someone who committed such a heinous act has their conviction and sentence tossed out,” said Russ Willard, spokesman for the Georgia Attorney General’s office.
But Denson’s attorney noted his case is not unusual — roughly a dozen similar sentences have been overturned by Georgia appellate courts over the last four years.
“A constitutional right is never a technicality,” said Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a Mercer University Law School professor who handled Denson’s appeal.
“All I’m trying to do is make sure people get it right,” she said. “This was his 45 minutes in court before he spends the rest of his life in prison. There’s nothing we should care about more than this procedure.”
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