AIKEN -- As he lay in a hospital with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, David Mark Hill muttered a blunt answer when asked by an investigator why he killed Social Services caseworker Josie Curry:
"Because she's black."
The testimony -- which came late Monday on the first day of Mr. Hill's capital murder trial -- was the first public statement giving a racial motive for any of the three killings at the North Augusta Department of Social Services office in 1996.
The jury did not hear the evidence, but Circuit Judge Marc Westbrook ruled Monday evening during a special hearing that the panel will listen to the evidence when the trial resumes this morning. The jury has five blacks and seven whites.
"As to the weight to be given the testimony, that is up to the jury," Judge Westbrook said.
The hearing came after a gut-wrenching day of testimony that had family members of the three slain caseworkers in tears.
Police say Mr. Hill snapped after the DSS office took control of his quadriplegic daughter and twin sons. Michael Gregory, Jimmy Riddle and Ms. Curry were killed Sept. 16, 1996.
The sole eyewitness to actual gunfire, caseworker Annette Michael, broke down on the stand Monday after telling the jurors that she faked her death to survive the rampage that disrupted a normal day at her office. At one point, the judge ordered a break to allow Ms. Michael to compose herself.
Ms. Michael said the defendant entered the DSS office carrying a silver gun at his side and forced her and Ms. Curry to point out the office of Mr. Riddle, the employee handling Mr. Hill's case.
Once they got to Mr. Riddle's office, Ms. Curry said, "Jimmy, this man would like to see you," Ms. Michael testified. That's when gunfire rang out, hitting Mr. Riddle.
Ms. Michael froze. She heard a second shot fired over her right shoulder, which struck Ms. Curry and forced the woman to her knees.
"Her head exploded," Ms. Michael testified, choking back tears. "I started going down, and then there was another shot. So I said, `I'll close my eyes and pretend I'm dead.'
"I wasn't thinking anything other than God had his angels to have me go down. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here today."
Other witnesses, including former DSS employees Sandy Summerall and Jane Davis, testified about hearing the shots and seeing Mr. Hill casually walking around the office.
Tammie and Britt Campbell, family members of Mr. Hill's wife, Jacqueline, told the courtroom that they provided their in-law a ride to the DSS office. During the ride, Mr. Hill mumbled that he was "tired of these people playing God with his children," Mrs. Campbell said.
During the special hearing Monday, defense attorney Robert Harte objected to allowing his client's alleged confession, saying the motive for the killings was a "critical issue" in the case. Mr. Harte argued there was no other evidence in Mr. Hill's background to support testimony that he killed anyone for reasons of race.
In the hearing, an agent with the State Law Enforcement Division said he interviewed Mr. Hill before the suspect underwent surgery for a self-inflicted gunshot wound suffered Sept. 17, 1996, the day after the killings.
Earlier that day, officers found Mr. Hill lying on the railroad tracks near the DSS office. He had shot himself in the mouth and was rushed to Medical College of Georgia Hospital.
After reading Mr. Hill his Miranda rights, the suspect cooperated and agreed to answer questions, SLED Agent Dan Choate said. The agent gave the following account of his interview:
"Who was the first person you shot?" Agent Choate asked.
"The man in the bathroom," said Mr. Hill, referring to Mr. Gregory, the caseworker apparently shot because the suspect stumbled on him in the men's bathroom.
"Who did you shoot next?" Agent Choate asked.
"He was my caseworker."
"Who'd you shoot last?"
"The black lady."
"Because she's black."
In other testimony late Monday, SLED Agent Bruce Otterbacher said he thought Mr. Hill was dying at the railroad tracks, so he asked the suspect if he believed in God. When Mr. Hill answered yes, the agent suggested that he ask God for forgiveness.
In opening statements Monday, Mr. Harte told the jury that he will not try to prove Mr. Hill's innocence but will argue that he does not deserve the death penalty.
"David Hill did shoot those people," he said. But jurors must keep an open mind and consider "what went on through this man's life that led up to him doing this awful, terrible thing."
If found guilty, jurors will have a 24-hour break and then hear testimony from both sides about whether Mr. Hill should die for the shooting rampage.
The trial resumes this morning at 9 a.m.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.