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Less than half of potential jurors show up for jury selection in cold case murder trial

The judge says the worst-case scenario involves summoning additional jurors that are needed, which is "basically snatching jurors off the street" to come serve on the jury.
Frankie Gebhardt in court on Monday, June 18, 2018.

GRIFFIN, Ga. — Less than half of potential jurors for the trial of the 1983 racially-motivated murder of 23-year-old Timothy Coggins showed up for jury selection Monday morning in Griffin.

11Alive's Joe Henke says only 127 people showed up out of a jury pool of more than 325, according to Judge Fletcher Sams.

“I’ve instructed the clerks to get a list of those no-shows and deliver them to the sheriff’s office to see if we can get those served in case somebody has forgotten about their civic responsibility," Sams said in court Monday afternoon.

By Monday night, the Spalding County Sheriff's Office said deputies would be paying each no-show a personal visit.

Meanwhile, the judge said they would proceed with court the best they could.

"If we can’t recover those numbers with the sheriff’s efforts to locate these missing jurors we may be forced to cannibalize jurors from another courtroom,” Sams said.

Credit: WXIA
Judge Fletcher Sams on the bench in Spalding County Superior Court on June 18, 2018

Sams says proceedings would continue with the individuals that did show up in the hopes of finalizing a jury.

“Worse-case scenario is that we delay the finalization of the jury selection until (next) Monday when we have fresh jurors coming in to add to this," Sams said.

Another option, Sams said, is a little-known statute that authorizes the court to direct the sheriff to immediately summon additional jurors that are needed. However, the judge said that would be a "drastic alternative."

"I hope that we don’t have to use that because it is basically snatching jurors off the street to immediately come in for jury service which is unfair to them,” he said.

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Frankie Gebhardt in court on Monday, June 18, 2018.

Sams had previously told the state and defense they would shoot to have opening arguments on Wednesday at 9 a.m., or as close to that as possible, once a jury was seated. But once he was informed of the low turnout, he made the comments noted here.

"I'm astounded by the lack of response from most of these jurors," Sams said. "This far less than a 50 percent turnout which is unheard of, but we will proceed the best we can."

The Defense told 11Alive following jury questioning on Monday that they tallied 53 potential jurors who advanced to the next round and will be back on Tuesday for more questioning. Twelve more people will need to go through the first round of questioning.

The Defense said it is still a real possibility they will seat a jury without delays to the trial and have the opening statements begin Wednesday as the judge had hoped for.

PHOTOS | Timothy Coggins murder arrests

The case involves the murder of Coggins in October 1983 in Spalding County. Five people were arrested in 2017 in connection with the murder. Murder charges were filed against 59-year-old Frankie Gebhardt and 58-year-old Bill Moore, Sr. Milner Police Officer Lamar Bunn, his mother Sandra Bunn and Spalding County Detention Officer Gregory Huffman were each charged with obstruction in the case. Authorities say Coggins was killed after socializing with a white woman.

Monday's case is against Gebhardt. The murder case against Moore, along with the obstruction cases against Bunn, his mother and Huffman will be tried separately.

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