ATLANTA — Georgia's top court turned down the state's request to allow the execution of a convicted murderer to proceed on Wednesday, pushing back the lethal injection at least three months.
The Georgia Supreme Court's decision postpones the execution of Marcus Ray Johnson until at least Feb. 1, when a judge scheduled a hearing to address the condemned man's request for additional DNA testing. His attorneys are asking the courts to call it off entirely and grant him a new trial.
Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said he was "100 percent sure" that Johnson raped and killed Angela Sizemore outside an Albany nightclub in March 1994. He was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death four years later, and appeals courts have repeatedly upheld the punishment.
But Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette halted the execution on Tuesday after defense attorney Brian Kammer said the defense team needed more time to study a "new, never before seen box of physical evidence" that contained several items attorneys have sought from investigators since 2001.
The Georgia Supreme Court refused to lift the stay after Edwards urged the justices to "stop the potential for science to run amok as a means to manufacture doubt where there is none." The three-page ruling said the state had no legal basis for the appeal, but didn't rule on Johnson's request for more DNA testing.
The Georgia pardons board, meanwhile, said it was suspending deliberations on the Johnson's appeal for clemency until his appeals are exhausted.
Sizemore and Johnson were at an Albany nightclub called Fundamentals the night of March 23, 1994 when witnesses spotted them kissing in one of the booths and drinking heavily. They were last seen together leaving the bar early the next morning, walking toward a bar where Johnson had worked.
The next day, a man walking his dog discovered her battered body inside her white SUV parked behind an Albany apartment complex. She had been stabbed 41 times with a small, dull knife and suffered severe internal injuries when she was sexually assaulted with a pecan tree branch.
Police quickly focused on Johnson, and two witnesses told investigators they saw Johnson walking from the area where the victim's SUV was parked. He was arrested less than 24 hours after the killing.
Johnson told authorities he led Sizemore to a grassy vacant lot where they had consensual sex, and that he then "kind of lost it" and punched her in the face during an argument. But Johnson said he immediately left after the argument and headed home to collapse on his front yard, where he woke up the next morning. He insisted that he did not kill her.
DNA testing matched the victim's blood to Johnson's leather jacket, and authorities said his pocketknife matched the wounds discovered on her body. He also had scratches on his hands, arms and neck. But Johnson's lawyers say he wasn't involved in the brutality that claimed her life. They say investigators never found her blood on his knife, and only trace amounts of blood on his jacket.
Johnson's lawyers raised questions about eyewitness statements that linked him to the crime. And they argued there were enough "troubling inconsistencies" in the evidence presented at the trial to merit new DNA testing on samples collected at the scene that he said could exonerate his client, including saliva, fingernail clippings and hairs.
Prosecutors countered in Wednesday's motion that any of the dozens of people who came into contact with Sizemore during her final hours could be labeled a suspect, even those who simply "gave her a friendly pat on the back" or danced with her at the nightclub.
"There will always be someone else 'out there' who could have perpetrated this crime," it said. "There could be no end to speculative investigation."