Brenda Gordon-Richner was on the phone with her sister in 2010 when she heard her nephew yell, “Grandma’s on the floor, there’s blood everywhere.”
In shock, Gordon-Richner listened to the sirens approaching her parents’ home in Waynesboro, then the news that both her father and stepmother were dead.
“You never think it will be your family, and when it does happen it’s completely surreal, like watching a late-night movie,” Gordon-Richner said.
By the time she arrived from Tacoma, Wash., three days later, investigators had arrested Tony Grubbs and charged him with murder in the killings of Ralph and Trudy Gordon. The district attorney’s office then announced it would seek the death penalty against Grubbs.
But as quickly as the initial events unfolded, the next two years slowed to a crawl.
Grubbs was represented by the Georgia Capital Defender office, which has come under fire for long delays in bringing cases to trial. In the Grubbs case, capital defenders admitted in a hearing last year that after 10 months of representation they had not collected any evidence or interviewed witnesses.
More recently, Superior Court Judge David Roper declared the capital defender office “systemically broken” after delays in the case of Kelvin Johnson. At a hearing scheduled for Monday, state defenders will argue why they should remain on the case. Roper has threatened to appoint private counsel at the state’s expense.
The Georgia Capital Defender Office began representing indigent defendants in 2005, but has seen its funding drop $2.3 million over the past seven years. In both of the pending death penalty cases in Richmond County, capital defenders have cited funding issues and excessive caseloads as the sources of delay in taking the case to trial.
In a hearing last July, Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig said that if the public defender staff is waiting for legislators to come to them asking how much money they wanted, “they will be waiting until Jesus comes.” Roper has expressed similar doubts, saying after the most recent request for delay, “I am going to make sure that the (Georgia) Supreme Court is aware of what trial judges, district attorneys and defendants are having to put up with and encounter with regard to the Capital Defender Office.”
Stephen Bright, the senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, defended the office before Craig last year.
“Judge Roper and other judges are upset when final resolution of some cases is delayed because the lawyers, mitigation specialist and investigators can only work on so many cases at a time,” Bright said by e-mail. “The lawyers and others handling Antony (sic) Grubbs were just too busy with other cases to be ready on one trial date, but once they got a bit more time they worked it up and resolved it with a guilty plea.”
That guilty plea earned Grubbs two life sentences without parole, plus 40 years.
Gordon-Richner said this week her support for the death penalty was strong both before and after her parents’ death. The decision to accept the plea was made “for the sanity of our family.” Instead of stirring up painful feelings with every appeal, the family decided to put the case to rest.
Rehashing all the details “would affect the family deeper than it already has,” Gordon-Richner said.
While the case is technically over, the pain of loss continues to resonate. It has affected the health of Gordon-Richner’s daughter, and her sister still struggles to talk about the murder. Gordon-Richner doubts she will ever fully accept what happened.
“It’s a day-by-day process,” she said. “You can get through it, but never over it.”