Man jailed for 7 years to go free

An Augusta man jailed nearly seven years should be free soon because the prosecutor put his murder case into inactive status.

 

Derek L. Willingham, 25, has been waiting more than a year for a retrial in Richmond County Superior Court.

On Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Ashley Wright said there is not enough evidence to take Mr. Willingham to trial.

Mr. Willingham was arrested with two other men in the March 4, 2000, shooting death of 36-year-old Ritchard Lewis.

Mr. Willingham was found guilty later that year, but in November 2005 the Georgia Supreme Court ruled he was unfairly convicted and entitled to a new trial.

"I think an innocent man goes home today," said attorney Randolph Frails, who successfully appealed Mr. Willingham's case and stood ready to defend him at the retrial.

Since his case was reversed, Mr. Willingham's retrial has been scheduled several times - including this week.

Ms. Wright said she requested Tuesday morning that Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. place Mr. Willingham's case on the dead docket. He should be released when the paperwork is completed, she said, although such a case can be reactivated if more evidence is found.

The Supreme Court found fault with Mr. Willingham's December 2000 conviction because another prosecutor was allowed to introduce testimony given by a man who died before the trial took place. That violated laws concerning hearsay, the Supreme Court ruled.

James O'Bryant had testified in the trial of Haskell Johnson, another suspect in the shooting, telling the court that Mr. Willingham participated in the robbery that led to Mr. Lewis' shooting death.

Although Mr. Johnson was indicted with Mr. Willingham, he stood trial first and was convicted of Mr. Lewis' murder. A few days later, however, the witness, Mr. O'Bryant, died.

Mr. Willingham's attorney maintained Mr. O'Bryant should not have been allowed to testify because his mental competency was questionable.

Mr. O'Bryant was suffering the final stages of a deadly disease, the attorney said.

Mr. Johnson has yet to have an appeal of his conviction. A third man arrested in Mr. Lewis' death, Eugene Frails, was acquitted at trial.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.