A former Augusta resident moved another step closer to execution this week when a federal appeals court denied his latest appeal.
In a 19-page opinion released Wednesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected Jose M. High's attempts to reverse his conviction and the death sentence he received for murdering 11-year-old Bonnie Bulloch on July 1, 1976.
"We conclude that (Mr.) High has failed to satisfy the very high threshold ... to demonstrate a miscarriage of justice with respect to the penalty phase," three judges of the Court of Appeals wrote.
Mr. High, now 41, has been on Georgia's death row since his December 1978 conviction in Taliaferro County Superior Court. Only seven men who were there on Mr. High's first day are still on death row.
"It's strange to think about, but Bonnie would be a grown man today, with kids the age he was when he died," said Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis Sanders. He had only worked as a prosecutor for five years when he assisted in Mr. High's conviction.
Mr. Sanders, who keeps a picture of Bonnie next to the pictures of his own sons at his office, said Mr. High's final appeal steps are to ask the appeals court for a hearing before all of the judges; if that's denied, Mr. High can then ask the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to appeal; and if that is denied, Mr. High can petition the governor.
Mr. High has appealed his conviction and death sentence for 21 years. While he has been unsuccessful, two accomplices to the murderous rampage, which included three killings in Richmond County, did win appeals. Nathan Brown and Judson Ruffin are serving life sentences.
The three men were convicted of robbing a Taliaferro County service station and abducting the operator, Henry Lee Phillips, and his 11-year-old stepson. The men drove Mr. Phillips and Bonnie to an isolated spot, made them lie face down on the ground and shot them both. Mr. Phillips survived and testified against the men.
Mr. Phillips identified Mr. High as one of killers. Three law enforcement officers testified that Mr. High confessed to the crimes and also told them that he and his accomplices taunted Bonnie on the ride, telling the boy he was to be killed, and that Bonnie had begged for his life.
But in this latest appeal, Mr. High's attorney argued the outcome of his client's trial may have been different if the jury had seen Mr. High's videotaped statement two days after his arrest in Augusta. Mr. High's current lawyers did not know the videotape existed until 1991.
In the appeals court opinion, Mr. High's former attorneys had no excuse for not having found the videotape earlier. Even if a valid excuse existed, Mr. High still had to show how he was prejudiced. "That he cannot do," the opinion reads.
The appeals court judges also wrote that Mr. High failed to show that no reasonable juror would have convicted him after viewing the tape, during which Mr. High says he did not kill anyone.
"Even if (Mr.) High himself did not actually shoot (Bonnie), the evidence is overwhelming that he would nevertheless still be guilty of the charged offense of murder ... High, Ruffin and Brown worked together to rob, abduct, and shoot (Mr. Phillips and Bonnie,)" the judges wrote.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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