Originally created 08/31/02

Man charged in Jessica Carpenter slaying



AIKEN - Investigators announced Friday that they have charged a man in a Georgia state prison in the death of Jessica Carpenter after DNA evidence linked him to the Aiken teenager's rape and slaying two years ago this month.

Prosecutors, however, have not decided whether to seek the death penalty against Robert Franklin Atkins, 31, for the Crosland Park slaying and assault.

"Clearly it has got the elements of a death penalty case," 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan said. "We'll be considering if that's appropriate after we meet with the family and law enforcement after the next couple of weeks."

Mr. Atkins is described by police as someone who drifted, living in various cities throughout the Southeast, including Grovetown. He has been in and out of the state prison system for most of his life.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said it determined the DNA match Aug. 19, six days after Mr. Atkins' DNA was submitted into a Georgia database. Since then, police have been tracking down information related to the new suspect and collecting more evidence.

Already in Ware State Prison in Waycross, Ga., for a probation violation on a theft by taking charge, Mr. Atkins was notified of the warrants against him Wednesday.

He is now being held at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, where he is awaiting the extradition process.

According to Ms. Morgan, this case appears to be the first in South Carolina in which DNA from another state's prison system made a positive match.

"It's a new chapter in criminal investigation because of the use of DNA," she said.

Mr. Atkins did not have an adult record of sexual assault or other crimes considered violent by the state. But his list of other offenses, in particular theft and burglary, is extensive.

In addition to the murder charge in the Carpenter case, Mr. Atkins has been charged with first degree burglary, first degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

Mr. Atkins had been out of state prison for about eight months and was listed under a Grovetown address when Jessica was killed. He was working for Moore Express, a now-defunct package delivery subcontractor for Airborne Express.

"He had delivered packages to her house," said Capt. Dwayne Courtney, the head of the Aiken Department of Public Safety's investigative division.

Capt. Courtney said police believe Mr. Atkins targeted Jessica through his job, but he said he could not go into details about whether Mr. Atkins was delivering a package or simply returning to the home Aug. 4, 2000, the day she was killed.

"He had delivered throughout Crosland Park. He had even delivered packages here," the captain said, referring to the police station.

Capt. Courtney said he doesn't believe Mr. Atkins is a suspect in any other rape or murder investigation.

He also said the DNA match puts to rest any questions about the involvement of both Tonnie Nathaniel Baldwin, named by a jail house informant as having committed the crime, or Reinaldo J. Rivera, who is suspected in similar crimes in the two-state area.

Investigators said they believe Mr. Atkins acted alone in the rape and asphyxiation.

Prosecutors, however, have not decided whether to seek the death penalty against Robert Franklin Atkins, 31, for the Crosland Park slaying and assault.

"Clearly it has got the elements of a death penalty case," 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan said. "We'll be considering if that's appropriate after we meet with the family and law enforcement after the next couple of weeks."

Mr. Atkins is described by police as someone who drifted, living in various cities throughout the Southeast, including Grovetown. He has been in and out of the state prison system for most of his life.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said it determined the DNA match Aug. 19, six days after Mr. Atkins' DNA was submitted into a Georgia database. Since then, police have been tracking down information related to the new suspect and collecting more evidence.

Already in Ware State Prison in Waycross, Ga., for a probation violation on a theft by taking charge, Mr. Atkins was notified of the warrants against him Wednesday.

He is now being held at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, where he is awaiting the extradition process.

According to Ms. Morgan, this case appears to be the first in South Carolina in which DNA from another state's prison system made a positive match.

"It's a new chapter in criminal investigation because of the use of DNA," she said.

Mr. Atkins did not have an adult record of sexual assault or other crimes considered violent by the state. But his list of other offenses, in particular theft and burglary, is extensive.

In addition to the murder charge in the Carpenter case, Mr. Atkins has been charged with first degree burglary, first degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

Mr. Atkins had been out of state prison for about eight months and was listed under a Grovetown address when Jessica was killed. He was working for Moore Express, a now-defunct package delivery subcontractor for Airborne Express.

"He had delivered packages to her house," said Capt. Dwayne Courtney, the head of the Aiken Department of Public Safety's investigative division.

Capt. Courtney said police believe Mr. Atkins targeted Jessica through his job, but he said he could not go into details about whether Mr. Atkins was delivering a package or simply returning to the home Aug. 4, 2000, the day she was killed.

"He had delivered throughout Crosland Park. He had even delivered packages here," the captain said, referring to the police station.

Capt. Courtney said he doesn't believe Mr. Atkins is a suspect in any other rape or murder investigation.

He also said the DNA match puts to rest any questions about the involvement of both Tonnie Nathaniel Baldwin, named by a jail house informant as having committed the crime, or Reinaldo J. Rivera, who is suspected in similar crimes in the two-state area.

Investigators said they believe Mr. Atkins acted alone in the rape and asphyxiation.

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"We've worked this case literally backwards to put Mr. Atkins with Miss Carpenter that day," Capt. Courtney said. "I don't know a division in this department that hasn't been affected by this thing."

At a Friday morning news conference, Capt. Courtney and Aiken Police Chief Pete Frommer praised the public and other agencies involved in solving the case.

Between 300 and 400 interviews were conducted by police during the investigation and 94 DNA samples were submitted to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, many of them granted voluntarily by neighbors to help police rule out suspects.

"The first responding officers did everything right that day," Capt. Courtney said. He also commended Investigator Ray Scott, who "toted the load on this case."

It was the investigator's first homicide case as a lead detective.

Charlie Carpenter, Jessica's father, said at the news conference that he could never thank the police enough for their efforts, and he became emotional when he spoke of his daughter.

"I would like to thank God for letting us have Jessica for a short 17 years," he said.

Susan Fussell, who is the mother of Mr. Atkins, was contacted Friday afternoon at her home in Macon, Ga. It was the first she had heard about the DNA match with her son, she said.

When asked whether she believes in her son's innocence, she said, "I certainly do."

As for elaborating on her son's background, "I'm not going to talk to you about that," she said.

INVESTIGATION TIMELINE

AUG. 4, 2000: Jessica Carpenter is found dead in her Crosland Park home.

AUG. 8, 2000: Family and 300 mourners attend Jessica's funeral.

AUG. 31, 2000: Police release a sketch of a young man wanted for questioning.

OCT. 18, 2000: Suspected serial killer Reinaldo Rivera's DNA fails to match DNA from the scene.

NOVEMBER 2000: Aiken police turn to the FBI for help.

NOV. 28, 2000: The family offers a $10,000 reward.

JAN. 16, 2001: A jail informant says inmate Tonnie Baldwin confessed; a judge orders a DNA test.

JAN. 19, 2001: The DNA fails to match Mr. Baldwin's.

AUG. 13, 2002: Georgia inmate Robert Atkins' DNA is submitted to a database.

AUG. 19, 2002: SLED matches his DNA to DNA left at the crime scene.

AUG. 30, 2002: Police announce the match and the charges.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.

Prosecutors, however, have not decided whether to seek the death penalty against Robert Franklin Atkins, 31, for the Crosland Park slaying and assault.

"Clearly it has got the elements of a death penalty case," 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan said. "We'll be considering if that's appropriate after we meet with the family and law enforcement after the next couple of weeks."

Mr. Atkins is described by police as someone who drifted, living in various cities throughout the Southeast, including Grovetown. He has been in and out of the state prison system for most of his life.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said it determined the DNA match Aug. 19, six days after Mr. Atkins' DNA was submitted into a Georgia database. Since then, police have been tracking down information related to the new suspect and collecting more evidence.

Already in Ware State Prison in Waycross, Ga., for a probation violation on a theft by taking charge, Mr. Atkins was notified of the warrants against him Wednesday.

He is now being held at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, where he is awaiting the extradition process.

According to Ms. Morgan, this case appears to be the first in South Carolina in which DNA from another state's prison system made a positive match.

"It's a new chapter in criminal investigation because of the use of DNA," she said.

Mr. Atkins did not have an adult record of sexual assault or other crimes considered violent by the state. But his list of other offenses, in particular theft and burglary, is extensive.

In addition to the murder charge in the Carpenter case, Mr. Atkins has been charged with first degree burglary, first degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

Mr. Atkins had been out of state prison for about eight months and was listed under a Grovetown address when Jessica was killed. He was working for Moore Express, a now-defunct package delivery subcontractor for Airborne Express.

"He had delivered packages to her house," said Capt. Dwayne Courtney, the head of the Aiken Department of Public Safety's investigative division.

Capt. Courtney said police believe Mr. Atkins targeted Jessica through his job, but he said he could not go into details about whether Mr. Atkins was delivering a package or simply returning to the home Aug. 4, 2000, the day she was killed.

"He had delivered throughout Crosland Park. He had even delivered packages here," the captain said, referring to the police station.

Capt. Courtney said he doesn't believe Mr. Atkins is a suspect in any other rape or murder investigation.

He also said the DNA match puts to rest any questions about the involvement of both Tonnie Nathaniel Baldwin, named by a jail house informant as having committed the crime, or Reinaldo J. Rivera, who is suspected in similar crimes in the two-state area.

Investigators said they believe Mr. Atkins acted alone in the rape and asphyxiation.