LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- More than a quarter-century after a local man kidnapped a pregnant woman, broke her ribs, stuffed wads of paper down her throat, suffocated her and dumped her body in the woods, his lawyer is coming back to court for a procedural step in a case that seems to never end.
To be clear, Jamie Ray Ward's guilt is not in doubt. A jury convicted him of murder and feticide in 1991. But his punishment is still uncertain.
The jury gave Ward the death penalty. A federal court of appeals overturned that punishment in 2010 and sent the case back to Walker County for a new sentencing hearing. And the case has sat there ever since, while the family of Ward's 23-year-old victim, Nikia Kay Gilbreath, waits for his case to conclude.
On Dec. 1, Superior Court Judge Jon "Bo" Wood set a date for a new motions hearing in Ward's case. Attorneys for the defense and state will come together on Jan. 7. Ward's lawyer, Jerry Word, could not be reached for comment this week, and Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin did not respond to an email seeking comment.
That motions hearing is supposed to move the case closer to the actual resentencing, which would conclude Ward's case more than two decades after the original killing.
Ward was one of three convicted murderers from Walker County featured in a Times Free Press article in August that looked into why their cases are still up in the air more than 20 years after their convictions.
Wilburn Wiley Dobbs and Jonathan Jarrells also received the death penalty. And like Ward, higher courts have awarded them new sentencing hearings because of problems during their original trials.
In November, a judge halted any future proceedings in Dobbs' case because he needs to have surgery to remove his prostate. Attorneys have not filed anything in Jarrells' case since July 31, according to Walker County court records.
In Ward's case, a federal appeals court reversed his capital punishment in January 2010 because a bailiff answered a juror's question during the sentencing phase of the original trial. The bailiff told the jury that they could not sentence Ward to life without parole: They could either sentence him to death or to a life sentence with the possibility of parole. According to Georgia law, only a judge could answer that question.
Next month, Wood will rule on a series of motions that Ward's attorney filed July 28. The motions range from letting Ward see a list of witnesses who will be called at the hearing to preventing prosecutors from telling the jury that Ward has already received the death penalty once.
Ward was not arrested for Gilbreath's murder until about four months after investigators found her body in the woods. They realized he killed her after he was arrested for stalking and raping another woman. Investigators noticed similarities between the cases, and they found notes in his house that indicated he once drilled a well on Gilbreath's property.
Ward had already been arrested five times for assaulting, stalking and trying to lure other women into private places. He lived in a home without walls, running water or electricity, and he collected thousands of dollars' worth of lingerie, pornography and newspaper clippings about rapes and murders.
In a notebook, next to directions to Gilbreath's house, he wrote, "fine looking."
When police questioned Ward about Gilbreath's death in December 1989, he was noncommittal.
"I might have and I might not have," he said. "I'm just not sure. I told you, I black out when I take pills and drink liquor. ... I've been a liar all my life. I need some help. If I done it, I didn't mean for it to happen and I'm sorry."
In August, Gilbreath's mother, Linda Tucker, said she is not holding her breath for Ward's case to be resolved.
"I stopped wondering," she said. "We've been forced to move on with our lives before. There's no point in sitting and waiting."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at email@example.com or at 423-757-6476.