Defense attorney Randolph Frails filed the latest motion for a new trial for Willie Palmer, who had three death penalty trials and wound up on Georgia’s death row in Jackson. Frails is handling Palmer’s defense alone because his former co-counsel is gravely ill.
Palmer, now 60, stood trial on capital murder charges for the Sept. 10, 1995, killings of Brenda Jenkins Palmer, 31, and Christine Jenkins, 15, in Vidette, Ga., where witnesses testified that Palmer’s estranged wife was trying to hide.
Palmer’s most recent trial in Burke County Superior Court ended in August 2007. On Monday, the first step in the appeals process begins with Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. hearing Palmer’s motion for a new trial.
Blanchard inherited the case from Senior Judge William M. Fleming Jr., who declared a mistrial in Palmer’s first trial in Burke County and granted a motion to move the second trial to Washington County, where Palmer was sentenced to death in November 1997.
That conviction and sentence were reversed on appeal 10 years later when it was revealed that the attorneys were never told that a crucial prosecution witness had been paid for his testimony.
Fleming also presided over Palmer’s third trial in Burke County in August 2007.
Among the defense’s grounds for a new trial is the contention that Fleming made improper comments in front of the jury about a doctor whose testimony was the cornerstone of defense attempts to persuade jurors to find Palmer intellectually impaired. Such a finding would have made him ineligible for a death sentence.
When the doctor’s testimony ended, Fleming commented, “What your testimony is, it doesn’t help us one way or the other?” When the witness responded that his testimony was useless, Fleming remarked: “That’s what I thought.”
Making remarks about defense witnesses earned Fleming a legal smack from the Georgia Supreme Court when it reversed a 2000 Augusta aggravated assault conviction.
“The trial judge crossed the line when he questioned defendant’s experts about post-traumatic stress syndrome and attempted suicide,” the high court stated. “In each of those instances, the trial judge effectively disparage defendant’s psychiatric defense and intimated that he gave it no credence whatsoever.”
It was a precedent-setting ruling because the Supreme Court had previously ruled such behavior wasn’t a reversible error unless the defense attorney objected at trial. In the 2000 case, the justices found the error was so serious that it demanded a reversal.