Third trial set for man in slayings of relatives

A capital murder trial for Willie Palmer is set to begin Monday in Burke County. Again.

Mr. Palmer, 54, spent a decade on death row until an appellate court discovered a glaring flaw in his conviction: a crucial prosecution witness had been paid for his information, a fact neither defense nor prosecuting attorneys knew at the time of his trial.

Mr. Palmer faces murder charges in the Sept. 10, 1995, slayings of his estranged wife, 31-year-old Brenda Jenkins Palmer, and his stepdaughter, 15-year-old Christine Jenkins.

The case has been twisted in knots since the two bodies were discovered in the tiny Vidette, Ga., house Ms. Palmer rented. The Palmers' 15-month-old daughter was found alive inside with the bodies.

The prosecution contends Ms. Palmer rented the two-room house to hide from Mr. Palmer. She had filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order against her estranged husband.

They were to appear for a court hearing on the day the bodies were discovered.

Mr. Palmer initially stood trial in Burke County Superior Court in April 1997, but it was curtailed by a mistrial. Citing extensive media coverage of the case, the judge granted a motion to move the trial out of Burke County.

In November 1997, Mr. Palmer stood trial in Washington County. The jury convicted him and set the punishment at death.

The conviction was affirmed on appeal until October 2003, when a judge learned for the first time that a critically important witness was paid $500 for his testimony.

When the Georgia Supreme Court reviewed the judge's decision to reverse the convictions, it agreed. Mr. Palmer's conviction was flawed to the point of fundamental unfairness, the court found.

On Monday, the trial starts over from the beginning.

Assistant District Attorney Ashley Wright said the attorneys hope to find impartial jurors in Burke County because so many years have passed since the double homicide and earlier trials.

The attorneys anticipate the first week will be consumed with selecting jurors. Each potential juror must be questioned individually about his or her ability to be impartial, and the ability to set punishment, if necessary, at life with or without parole or death.

Neither side has requested that the jury be sequestered, Ms. Wright said. That means jurors will be allowed to leave during breaks in the trial.

All of the witnesses have been located, Ms. Wright said. Once testimony begins, the trial could continue for five to seven days.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.