ATLANTA - Former suburban Atlanta dentist Barton Corbin returns to court this week as the first of the two murder trials he faces starts in Gwinnett County.
Jurors will decide whether Dr. Corbin, 42, murdered his estranged wife two years ago and then tried to cover it up as a suicide or whether Jennifer Corbin fatally shot herself.
Gwinnett County prosecutors say similarities surrounding the death of Dr. Corbin's girlfriend in Augusta 16 years ago, which Dr. Corbin also will have to stand trial for in Richmond County, will play a role in the proceedings.
On June 6, 1990, Dorothy "Dolly" Hearn was found dead in her Parrish Road apartment from a gunshot to the head. A .38-caliber gun was in her lap.
At the time, the death of the 27-year-old dental student at the Medical College of Georgia was considered a suicide, but the cause of death was never officially settled.
Soon after Mrs. Corbin, 33, was found dead Dec. 4, 2004, at the couple's home in Buford, authorities began to focus on Dr. Corbin, who had file for divorce less than two weeks earlier.
A Richmond County grand jury indicted him Dec. 22 on murder charges in Ms. Hearn's case, and a Gwinnett County grand jury followed suit soon after in Mrs. Corbin's death.
Dr. Corbin has pleaded not guilty in both cases, and his attorneys maintain that the deaths were both the suicides of women facing personal difficulties.
Now, a year and half later, during which time Dr. Corbin has remained in either Richmond or Gwinnett county jails, the similarities between the two women's deaths will be aired out in front of a jury.
On Thursday, the court is scheduled to start the jury-selection process, which is expected to take several days as attorneys question prospective jurors.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said they will have to find between 30 and 40 qualified jurors depending on how many alternates the judge wants to have.
"That could take us a week and a half," he said.
DR. CORBIN'S LAWYERS, Bruce Harvey and David Wolfe, have tried to get the trial moved, citing the high level of media coverage since the arrests.
The attorneys initially wanted the grand jury proceedings moved out of Gwinnett County, but the court denied the request and told them to hold off and keep the request open for the actual trial.
Mr. Porter said Friday that there was no word from the court on whether it would consider that request.
He said media influence on the jury poll tends to be less than people assume.
Dr. Corbin's case has attracted some national attention, and Court TV has applied to record the upcoming trial.
After the intense scrutiny after Dr. Corbin's arrest, his attorneys successfully got a temporary gag order imposed in the case, which has since been loosened.
They also fought against having evidence from Ms. Hearn's death in Augusta introduced in the Gwinnett County trial. Mr. Harvey and Mr. Wolfe argued in pre-trial hearings that witnesses' statements have changed since the initial investigation after Ms. Hearn's death.
"Now, 14 years later, the re-interviewing process in Augusta has resulted in a miraculous wealth of newly remembered details and revisionist history," they stated in a sarcastic court motion earlier.
Their request was denied to block Gwinnett prosecutors from bringing up Ms. Hearn.
Prosecutors will argue that on the nights that Ms. Hearn and Mrs. Corbin died, Dr. Corbin placed phone calls in an attempt to establish an alibi.
In Ms. Hearn's case, he called her apartment and left a message saying that he could not take her to a party that night, would see her the next day and loved her.
Around the time Mrs. Corbin is thought to have died, Dr. Corbin made a cell phone call to a marriage counselor, which prosecutors contend was also an attempt to create an alibi.
Though Dr. Corbin told police he was at his brother's house that night, prosecutors say they have evidence the cell phone call was transmitted by a tower near the Corbins' house, according to court documents.
The similarities surrounding the two deaths and relationships will be key for Mr. Porter's case, University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson said.
"Experience tells us that in a prosecution of this kind, the raising up to the jury of a uniquely similar prior event is critical," he said. "Nothing could be more prejudicial to the defendant than hearing the Augusta details."
MS. HEARN'S FAMILY members and friends have attended pre-trial hearings earlier this year, wearing buttons with her photo.
Gil Hearn, Dolly's brother, said in a statement e-mailed last week that the family is expecting that Ms. Hearn's character "will inevitably be attacked through half-truths, exaggerations and false statements" based on arguments made in the preliminary hearings.
"Most importantly, we remain cautiously optimistic that justice will be served through the continued hard work of those in official capacities who are affiliated with both cases," he wrote.
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gwinnett County prosecutors plan to use similarities surrounding the 1990 death of Barton Corbin's girlfriend, Dorothy Hearn, in Augusta, to prove their case against Dr. Corbin as he stands trial in the shooting death of his wife, Jennifer Corbin.
Some of the similarities prosecutors will present:
- Both women had been romantically involved with Dr. Corbin and those relationships were deteriorating.
- There is evidence he harassed both women and possibly stole property from them, prosecutors say.
- On the nights Ms. Hearn and Jennifer Corbin died, prosecutors allege, Dr. Corbin placed phone calls in an attempt to establish an alibi.