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Execution Set for Roy Blankenship, Convicted of 1978 Murder of Elderly Savannah Woman

PRESS ADVISORY

Execution Set for Roy Blankenship, Convicted of 1978 Murder of Elderly Savannah Woman

June 6, 2011

Georgia Attorney General Samuel S. Olens offers the following information in the case against Roy Blankenship, who is currently scheduled to be executed on June 23, 2011 at 7:00 pm.

Scheduled Execution

On June 6, 2011, the Superior CourtofChathamCounty filed an order, setting the seven-day window in which the execution of Roy Blankenship may occur to begin at noon on June 23, 2011, and ending seven days later at noon on June 30, 2011.  The Commissioner of the Department of Corrections then set the specific date and time for the execution as 7:00 pm on June 23, 2011.  Blankenship has concluded his direct appeal proceedings and his state and federal habeas corpus proceedings.

Blankenship’s Crimes

On March 2, 1978, police officers were called to the residence of 78 year old Sarah Mims Bowen at 204 West 44th Street in Savannah, Georgia, where they were met by friends and neighbors of Mrs. Bowen.  (T. 295, 315).[1] Upon discovering the nude body of Mrs. Bowen on the bed in her bedroom, officers cleared the apartment of people and secured the area until additional officers arrived.  (T. 295-296, 299, 312).

In the living room of the apartment, officers found several blood-soaked paper towels on the floor, multiple blood-soaked towels on a chair, blood spatters on the wall above the chair, and the remaining portion of the roll of towels on an end table.  (T. 298).  In the bedroom, officers found several blood-soaked rags on a stool next to the head of the bed, on the foot of the bed and on the floor.  Id.  The nude body of the elderly victim showed multiple bruises and spots of blood on the forehead and above the eyes.  (T. 299). 

Adjacent to the bedroom was a family room which contained hanging plants and flowers and opened onto a second story balcony.  (T. 296).  The apartment was extremely dusty.  (T. 313).  In the dust, officers saw shoe prints which appeared to have been made by tennis shoes in a trail from the family room to the second story porch.  Id.  Broken glass from the door between the balcony and family room was found inside the room.  (T. 312).  A struggle had obviously occurred in the living room as evidenced by the disarray and blood on the floor, a bloody pillow on the floor, bloody hand towels on the floor and a small chair or stool that was overturned.  Id.

In the dust, officers found dirt from footprints, as well as from the previously mentioned set of footprints.  (T. 313).  One set of prints led around the exterior of the house and then came upstairs; footprints were found on the iron lattice post going up to the second story balcony, as well as on the top of the banister.  (T. 313-314).  There was a trail of footprints in the dust between the family room and the porch.  Id.  A set of footprints also led from the house at a southwest angle into the street.  Id.  Blankenship lived one block across the street from the victim in a southwest direction, in the same direction as the footprints leading away from the victim’s apartment.  Id.  On March 11, 1978, pursuant to a search warrant, Detective Jones seized tennis shoes from Blankenship’s house, which had similar ridges to the footprints found in the dust.  (T. 314-315).

On March 17, 1978, Blankenship was interviewed by former Detective Coy James and Detective McQuire.  (T. 311, 317-318).  After being advised of and signing a waiver of his constitutional rights, Blankenship gave an oral statement, which was taken down by a secretary and then typed into a written version of Blankenships statement.  (T. 318-319, 321).  After the typed statement was read to Blankenship, he signed the statement.  Id.  Blankenship's statement was read in its entirety to the jury.  (T. 323-325).

In his statement, Blankenship admitted that he: climbed up the iron rail to the second story porch; climbed over the banister and kicked in the window; he entered the next room and saw the bedroom, but saw no one; he went up to the door of the next room and saw the reflection in a mirror of a woman sitting in a chair; he grabbed her and covered her mouth so she would not scream; she slid down in the chair and fell on the floor and he fell on top of her; he then noticed blood coming out of her head; he carried her back to the bed, placed her on the bed, took her pajamas off her, and got my pleasure or whatever you want to call it; he dressed himself and left, leaving the apartment after forty-five minutes to an hour.  (T. 323-324).  Blankenship stated that he had been drinking that night and had to be drunk.

Dr. Roderick Guerry conducted the autopsy of the victim on March 3, 1978.  (T. 357-359).  The pathologist described the elderly victim as having been beaten severely about the face, arms and over much of her body.  (T. 359).  There were many bruises on her face.  Id.  The victim’s vagina, anal area and mouth were bruised and red.  Id.  The victim’s lips were scraped and bruised, as well as her tongue.  Id.  The pharynx in the back of her mouth was also bruised, ripped and torn.  Id.  There were numerous other bruises and lacerations about her face and body.  Id.  The pathologist found signs of severe pericarditis which can result in death if the person is subjected to severe emotional and physical stress.  (T. 359-360).  The victim also evidenced severe cardioarteriosclerosis.  Id.  The victim also evidenced scarring in her lungs.  Id.  The pathologist concluded that there were three possible causes of death: heart attack; heart failure; or strangulation, as indicated by marks on her neck.  Id.  A whitish fluid was found in both her mouth and vagina.  (T. 361).  The face was badly bruised, with much swelling around the eyes; the face and lips were purple and pink; blood was all over her face.  (T. 362).  The right side of her face was more severely beaten, giving rise to an inference that the assailant was left-handed.  (T. 363-364).  Blankenship is left-handed.  (T. 315).

Forensic Serologist Linda Tillman tested samples taken from both the victim and Blankenship.  (T. 376-381).  The blood scrapings evidenced type O blood and both the victim and Blankenship were type O secretors.  (T. 381-382).  While no sperm was found in the oral smear-microscopic slide, Ms. Tillman testified that sperm often are not found following evidence of oral sexual activity.  (T. 382, 384).  Tests revealed sperm in the vaginal smear and in the anal and vaginal swabs.  (T. 383). 

As mitigating evidence, Blankenship’s counsel decided to attempt to present the jury with the possibility that someone else could have committed the murder.  In fact, defense counsel attempted to implicate Gary X. Nelson, a black male who was convicted for the oral and anal rape and stabbing murder of a six-year old black female.  (T. 394). 

Blankenship also presented the testimony of Roger Parian, Director of the Savannah Crime Lab branch, who found a broken segment of negroid hair on the victims body.  (T. 401).  Mr. Parian described the one hair was broken on both ends and stated that it was so small that it could have come from anywhere.  (T. 404, 409).  Mr. Parian also stated that four fibers he had previously identified as negroid hairs with the naked eye were, upon microscopic analysis, synthetic fibers.  (T. 407).

Blankenship also presented the testimony of Medical Examiner Dr. Joe Burton in an attempt to absolve Blankenship.  (T. 413).  Dr. Burton testified that he did not view the injuries to the victim as severe and opined that the victim’s medical history and her medication could explain some of the bruises and other injuries found during the autopsy.  (T. 438-440). 

Especially significant for purposes of reviewing resentencing trial counsels effectiveness is the fact that Blankenship testified in his behalf and denied committing these crimes, but admitted his presence in the victim’s apartment.  (T. 451).  Blankenship contended he simply broke in the victim’s apartment to steal a car to sell, overheard the voice of a third person talking to the victim, heard a commotion, found her on the floor, placed her on the bed, and left after she awoke and screamed.  (T. 460-464). 

Blankenship claimed that his inculpatory statement to police was the result of intoxication.  (T. 464-465).  However, Detective James testified that Blankenship did not appear to be under the influence of any alcohol or drugs when Blankenship’s statement was taken.  (T. 319).  Significantly, Blankenship admitted that his testimony at this trial was inconsistent the testimony given at both his initial trial and his first resentencing trial, especially as to the subject of sex with the victim.  (T. 478, 480, 482).  Blankenship refused to explain the inconsistencies because of a vow between himself and God and, additionally, refused to identify the third person who was allegedly present in the apartment that night.  (T. 478, 483).

Therefore, in addition to Blankenship’s statement which was found to have been voluntarily entered, other significant evidence linking Blankenship to the crimes included the fact that it was established that Blankenship’s shoes matched an unusually patterned sole print that was left at the victim’s home where she was raped and murdered, Blankenship’s fingerprints were in the victims home, Blankenship’s blood type O was found under the victims fingernails, and Blankenship lived approximately one block from the victim. 

The Original Trial and Appeal Proceedings (1980-1981)

In April of 1980, Blankenship was originally convicted in the Superior CourtofChathamCounty of murder, burglary and rape.  Blankenship was sentenced to death for murder and received two twenty year sentences for the burglary and rape, to run consecutively to the death.  On direct appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, Blankenship’s convictions for murder and rape were affirmed; but his conviction for burglary was reversed and the sentence for burglary vacated as a lesser included offense of felony murder.  Blankenship v. State, 247 Ga. 590, 596 (1981).  Additionally, Blankenship’s death sentence for murder was reversed due to a finding of error under Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), and Blankenship’s case was remanded to the trial court for resentencing.  Id. at 594.

First Resentencing Trial and Appeal (1982-1983)

Blankenship’s first resentencing trial was held in the Superior Court of Chatham County, Georgia in September of 1982.  The jury found the existence of two statutory aggravating circumstances as contained in O.C.G.A. § 17-10-30(b)(2) and (b)(7), and recommended a sentence of death, which was imposed by the trial court. 

On direct appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court found that Blankenship had been impermissibly restricted in presenting evidence in mitigation and thus, reversed the death sentence and ordered a second resentencing trial.  Blankenship v. State, 251 Ga. 621 (1983)

Second Resentencing Trial and Appeal (1986-1988)

Blankenship’s second resentencing trial was held in June of 1986.  The jury found the existence of the same statutory aggravating circumstances as previously found in his prior sentencing proceedings, and sentenced Blankenship to death for a third time on June 13, 1986.  On direct appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Blankenship’s death sentence.  Blankenship v. State, 258 Ga. 43 (1988).  Blankenship filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on October 3, 1988.  Blankenship v. Georgia, 488 U.S. 871 (1988).

First State Habeas Proceeding (1989-1992)

Blankenship, represented by Donald Thompson, Kelli Smith and Gary Alexion, filed his first state habeas corpus petition in the Superior CourtofButtsCounty on May 15, 1989.  An evidentiary hearing was held on February 28, 1990.  On March 13, 1991, the state habeas corpus court denied Blankenship state habeas corpus relief.  Blankenship’s application for a certificate of probable cause to appeal filed in the Georgia Supreme Court was denied on September 25, 1991.  Blankenship then filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on March 30, 1992.  Blankenship v. Georgia, 503 U.S. 962 (1992). 

First Federal Habeas Corpus Proceeding (1993)

Blankenship, represented by Donald Thompson, Kelli Smith and G. Terry Jackson, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia on February 8, 1993.  On March 15, 1993, the Georgia Supreme Court entered a decision in another capital felony appeal, holding that it was rejecting the chain of circumstances analysis utilized by the Court in Blankenship’s first direct appeal.  Thompson v. State, 263 Ga. 23 (1993).  The Georgia Supreme Court stated that to the extent that the opinion in Blankenship, 247 Ga. at 591 (2), conflicted with Thompson, it was overruled.  Id. at 26. 

Based upon the Georgia Supreme Courts decision in Thompson, the parties agreed that a state court, rather than a federal court should determine what, if any, effect this ruling may have on Blankenship’s case, and to this end, agreed to Blankenship’s filing a state habeas corpus petition exclusively on this issue.  Blankenship subsequently filed a motion in the federal district court to dismiss the federal habeas corpus petition without prejudice pending the determination of the state law claim. 

Second State Habeas Corpus Proceeding (1993-2005)

Blankenship, represented by Donald Thompson and Kelli Smith, filed his second state habeas corpus petition in the Superior Court of Butts County, Georgia on April 15, 1993.  An evidentiary hearing was held on February 16, 2001.  On September 8, 2003, the state habeas corpus court denied Blankenship state habeas corpus relief.  Blankenship’s application for a certificate of probable cause to appeal filed in the Georgia Supreme Court was denied on September 15, 2004.  Blankenship then filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on June 27, 2005.  Blankenship v. Head, 545 U.S. 1150 (2005).

Second Federal Habeas Corpus Proceeding (2005-2008)

Blankenship, represented by Thomas H. Dunn and G. Terry Jackson, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia on October 21, 2005.  The district court denied Blankenship federal habeas corpus relief on December 13, 2007.  The district court denied a motion to alter and amend judgment on January 2, 2008.  The district court granted Blankenship a certificate of appealability on February 6, 2008.

11th Circuit Court of Appeals (2008)

The case was orally argued before the Eleventh Circuit on July 16, 2008.  On September 15, 2008, the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion which denied relief.  Blankenship v. Hall, 542 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2008).  Blankenship filed a petition for panel rehearing, which was denied on November 20, 2008.

United States Supreme Court (2009-2011)

Blankenship filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court on April 20, 2009, which was denied January 24, 2011.  Blankenship v. Hall, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 1014 (Case No. 08-9917).

New Execution Date Set (February 9, 2011)

On January 27, 2011, Judge Michael L. Karpf of the Superior CourtofChathamCounty filed an order, setting the seven-day window in which the execution of Blankenship may occur to begin at noon, February 9, 2011, and ending seven days later at noon on February 16, 2011.

DNA Testing (2011)

On February 4, 2011, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles entered a stay of execution.  The District Attorney and Blankenship’s attorney subsequently agreed to a consent order for the performance of DNA testing.  DNA testing has been completed, and the results failed to exculpate Blankenship.

 

[1] References to the trial transcript will be indicated by "T," followed by the appropriate page number.