Lawyers for a convicted Walker County, Ga., murderer say a local judge inflicted "cruel and unusual punishment" by pushing the killer's appeal back for nine years.
Jennifer Hildebrand, a LaFayette attorney representing Donnie Allen Hulett, told the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday that it was unfair to make Hulett wait that long after his initial trial. In April 2004, a Walker County jury found Hulett guilty of murdering two brothers in Sugar Valley.
A month later, according to court records, attorneys representing Hulett filed a motion for a new trial. However, no hearing occurred until February 2013, when Walker County Superior Court Judge Jon "Bo" Wood denied the motion. Wood also was the judge who sentenced Hulett to the death penalty nine years earlier.
Wood did not return a call seeking comment Monday. Neither did Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin.
In front of the Supreme Court, Hildebrand argued that sitting on death row for nine years, not knowing whether your appeal will ever be heard, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. She said the appeal should have gone to court sooner, that it was unfair to make Hulett wait that long as motions were pushed back years and a rotation of appointed lawyers took over and then dropped his case.
"The state alleges that all of that nine years was Mr. Hulett's fault when in fact it was not," Hildebrand told the court. "This case was a disaster from the start."
Justice David Nahmias asked how long a defendant can wait for a new hearing until that wait becomes "cruel and unusual." Hildebrand said there is no scientific, black-and-white answer. It's based on the mental state of each defendant.
Nahmias also pointed out that Hulett likely will continue to extend his own time on death row, if necessary, to delay his execution.
Hildebrand also argued that Hulett deserves a new trial for three other reasons. She said Wood should have kicked Larry Hill off the defense team when Hulett complained that he did not trust Hill. Hulett may not be able to pick any attorney he wants, Hildebrand argued, but he deserved an attorney he felt he could trust.
Hildebrand also said Wood erred by not retaining Steven Moore as Hulett's attorney during the appeal process. Hulett said he had a good relationship with Moore and wanted to continue to work with him. (Georgia Assistant Attorney General Dana Weinberger pointed out that Hulett did not ask for Moore again until about a year after filing an appeal.)
Hildebrand added that Hulett's original attorneys were "ineffective" during the sentencing hearing. She said they failed to bring forth certain pieces of evidence, such as school records and medical records.
But Weinberger argued against all of these points. She said Hulett never made a substantial argument that he needed a new attorney. And, Weinberger said, his attorneys were experienced and worked hard to show the court during the sentencing hearing that Hulett's parents had abandoned him, that he had been exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age, and that he had attempted suicide multiple times.
The Georgia Supreme Court has about six months to rule on cases heard Monday.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.