Originally created 09/23/96

Supreme Court to convene in Augusta



When the state Supreme Court justices gather in Augusta on Thursday, they will consider matters about the death penalty, state immunity and property rights.

At the invitation of the Augusta Bar Association, the state's highest court members agreed to hold court here, a first for the court, said James Wall of the local bar association.

Although the justices have held court sessions at law schools and at various Georgia cities for historic or ceremonial reasons, this is the first time a session has been moved outside Atlanta at a bar association's request, Mr. Wall said.

"We're hoping people will come out," Mr. Wall said of the public's opportunity to see the justices at work.

The session will last just one day. The court will take the matters under advisement and issue decisions later from Atlanta. The justices don't have any deadline on issuing decisions.

Thursday morning, the Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments on both sides of three cases: Mark McClain's challenge of his murder conviction and death sentence; Randy Keenan's challenge to a trial court's ruling that he couldn't sue the physician whose actions he claims left his wife severely brain damaged; and Mersac Inc.'s challenge to a ruling that the development company isn't entitled to an easement in a condominium complex.

Mr. McClain, 29, was convicted of murder and sentenced to die by a Richmond County Superior Court jury Sept. 15, 1995. The jury found he killed and robbed Kevin Scott Brown, 20, a manager at a Domino's Pizza on Nov. 20, 1994.

Defense attorneys Michael Garrett and Melissa Padgett contend 18 errors occurred during Mr. McClain's trial last fall and that the Supreme Court should grant a new trial.

The defense alleges errors occurred from juror selection - when the judge allegedly failed to remove biased jurors including one whom District Attorney Danny Craig taught in Sunday school - to the sentencing phase of the trial, when the court allegedly allowed Mr. Craig to argue sentencing Mr. McClain to death would have a deterrent effect on future crimes.

This is Mr. McClain's first appeal since Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet denied a motion for a new trial in March.

The second case on the calendar Thursday involves a medical malpractice case Mr. Keenan filed against Dr. Leo Plouffe, the Medical College of Georgia Physicians Practice Group Foundation and the makers of a device called an Argon Beam Coagulator.

Specifically, Mr. Keenan appeals a decision by a Superior Court judge that granted Dr. Plouffee immunity from a civil lawsuit based on his status as a state employee.

State law since 1991 has limited and guided civil lawsuits against the state and its employees. The Tort Claims Act limits damages against the state to $1 million. Mr. Keenan alleges Dr. Plouffe has $6.25 million in insurance coverage through the Physicians Practice Group and he should be allowed to make a claim against it. The $1 million wouldn't even cover the medical expenses of Mr. Keenan's wife, Onei Gue Keenan, the appeal claims.

During surgery Feb. 23, 1994, which was performed by Dr. Plouffe, Mr. Keenan claims his wife suffered severe brain damage when Dr. Plouffe improperly used the Argon Beam Coagulator and argon gas entered her blood stream.

The state contends the trial judge's ruling was correct because Dr. Plouffe is a state employee through his status as a faculty member at the Medical College of Georgia and his employment contract with the Board of Regents.

In the third case on the Supreme Court's Thursday calendar, Mersac Inc. is asking the court to overrule a trial court's decision that it isn't entitled to an easement from National Hills Condominium Association.

Mersac developed the condominium project, The Summit, and sold the units individually, unintentionally cutting off any access to the property it still owned except by a private road. The trial court granted the condominium associations request to bar the developer from using Mersac Court, a private road.