The Georgia Supreme Court says that the death penalty is not enough punishment for a Walker County killer.
In an opinion released Monday morning, the justices unanimously ruled that the sentence was "favorable to the defendant" in the case of Donnie Allen Hulett. In April 2004, a jury convicted Hulett of murdering two brothers, and Superior Court Judge Jon "Bo" Wood sentenced him to death.
The top court's decision could delay Hulett's execution in a case that has dragged on for 10 years. A month after his conviction in 2004, attorneys for Hulett asked for a new trial, as often happens after a guilty verdict in a criminal case.
But the appeal lingered for nine years. Wood did not deny Hulett's request for a new trial until 2013. And because Wood did not deny the motion until last year, Hulett's attorney did not appeal it further up the judicial chain until this year.
Now, because of an error 10 years ago, Hulett is due to return to Walker County Superior Court for a new sentencing hearing. The Supreme Court said Wood was too soft.
In all, the jury convicted Hulett in 2004 of 17 different crimes. Those crimes included two counts of malice murder.
When Wood sentenced Hulett, he gave him the death penalty for malice murder and "merged" all the other charges. But the Supreme Court justices say Wood should not have done that. They ruled that Wood should have punished Hulett separately for a couple of his crimes: robbery and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The Supreme Court says that those crimes were committed separately from the murder.
The court's reasoning? If Hulett had not been found guilty of murder, he would have still been guilty of robbery. And if Hulett had not been found guilty of robbery or murder, he would have still been found guilty of carrying a firearm when he was not allowed to have one.
The Supreme Court found that Wood was unfair to prosecutors, though prosecutors asked Wood to "merge" the charges when he sentenced Hulett. No prosecutor has objected to that since the sentencing.
Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein wrote, "if we notice a merger issue in a direct appeal, as we have here, we regularly resolve that issue, even where (it) was not raised in the trial court and is not enumerated as error on the appeal."
Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said the Supreme Court's ruling surprised him. Ten years ago, he asked Wood to "merge" the charges because he thought that would reduce Hulett's chances of winning an appeal down the line.
"We try to err on the side of caution," he said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.