Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker offers the following information in the case against John Washington Hightower, who is currently scheduled to be executed on June 26, 2007 at 7:00 pm.
Scheduled Execution On June 11, 2007, the Superior Court of Baldwin County filed an order, setting the seven-day window in which the execution of John Washington Hightower may occur to begin at noon, June 26, 2007, and ending seven days later at noon on July 3, 2007. The Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, acting pursuant to his authority and responsibility under Georgia law, acted on June 12, 2007 and scheduled the execution to take place on June 26, 2007 at 7:00 pm. Hightower has concluded his direct appeal proceedings and his state and federal habeas corpus proceedings.
Dorothy Hightower, Evelyn Reaves, and Sandra Reaves were found shot to death in their home at 115 McKinley, in Milledgeville, Baldwin County Georgia, at approximately 3:00 a.m. on July 12, 1987. It is undisputed that Hightower, husband of 42 year-old victim Dorothy Hightower and step-father of 22-year old victim Sandra Reaves and 19-year old victim Evelyn Reaves, shot and killed the three victims. (T. 671-675).
Witness Curtis Reaves, brother of the victim Dorothy Hightower, testified that he and his wife returned to the victim’s residence sometime after 2:00 a.m. on July 12, 1987, to pick up their daughter who had been staying with the victims. (T. 670-680). The couple had previously planned on coming to the apartment at approximately 8:00 a.m. that morning to retrieve their child. (T. 681). Upon arriving at the apartment, the witness testified that victim Dorothy Hightower’s car was gone, which he considered unusual. (T. 681-682). Upon entering the residence, the witness testified that he discovered the bodies of the three victims, and retrieved his daughter, who had not been harmed. (T. 682). Victim Evelyn Reaves was still alive when she was first discovered, but died two days later during the afternoon of July 14, 1987. (T. 675, 682, 688).
Based on a description of Hightower and a description of victim’s Dorothy Hightower’s car given to the police by Curtis Reaves, Hightower was stopped at approximately 4:30 a.m. on July 12, and arrested without incident. (T. 692-694, 706-708). Hightower was informed of the Miranda warnings at the scene of his arrest. (T. 707-708). A small caliber handgun later determined to be the murder weapon was found on the driver’s side floorboard of the vehicle Hightower was driving. (T. 709). A close examination of the handgun revealed the presence of flesh and blood on the weapon. (T. 731). Several police officers involved in the arrest and subsequent questioning of Hightower testified that he did not appear to be intoxicated in any manner, and accordingly, that there was no probable cause to take a blood sample of Hightower. (T. 696, 700, 736-737, 776, 785).
Hightower was taken to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, where he was again advised of the Miranda warnings and his clothes, stained with blood, were taken to be analyzed later. (T. 731-734). Hightower indicated that he understood his rights, and declined to make a statement. (T. 732).
Hightower was returned to Baldwin County, where he was questioned at approximately 10:58 a.m. on July 12, 1998. (T. 732, 775). Hightower was again apprised of the Miranda warnings, and signed a waiver of counsel certificate. (T. 773). Officer Ramey of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who took Hightower’s statement, testified that Hightower did not appear to be under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicants. (T. 776, 785). Hightower made two statements to the police admitting that he had shot the three victims. One of the statements was transcribed verbatim by Officer Ramey at Hightower’s request. (T. 776-781). The trial court ruled prior to trial that the statements given by Hightower were voluntary and admissible. (Motion hearing of February 19, 1988).
In his statement, Hightower told police that he had been having marital problems with his wife, victim Dorothy Hightower, since their marriage in 1983. (T. 778). Hightower stated that he had been arguing constantly with victim Dorothy Hightower, as well as with victim Sandra Reaves during the week prior to the killings. (T. 778-779). Victim Dorothy Hightower asked Hightower if he would move out of the house, and he made arrangements to do so. (T. 779). Hightower admitted that on Saturday morning July 11, 1987 he purchased the murder weapon and ammunition. (T. 779). Hightower further stated that he had been drinking and snorting cocaine throughout the day. (T. 779-780).
Hightower arrived at the victim’s residence at approximately 10:30 p.m. Saturday night. (T. 779). Hightower had placed the gun under the pillow in the bedroom that he and victim Dorothy Hightower shared. (T. 780). At approximately 3:00 a.m., after the victims had gone to sleep, and after learning that Curtis Reaves would not be picking up his daughter until later that morning, Hightower retrieved the weapon and shot the victims. (T. 780). Hightower admitted that he shot victim Dorothy Hightower in the left side of the head, then went into victim Sandra Reaves’ room. (T. 780). Sandra Reaves initially got out of bed when Hightower approached, but then laid back onto the bed, and was then shot twice by Hightower. (T. 780). Victim Evelyn Reaves tried to run from the house, but Hightower caught her at the front door and shot her as she attempted to run back into the living room. (T. 780). Hightower shot at Evelyn Reaves about three times, having cleared the weapon after it jammed one time by taking a shell out and putting another one in. (T. 780). Hightower stated that he didn’t shoot 3 year-old Kisha Reaves because he “didn’t have any problems with the baby.” (T. 780). Hightower then took Dorothy Hightower’s car and left the residence. (T. 781).
Victor Bayne, owner of Bayne’s Army Store in Milledgeville, testified that Hightower came into his store on Friday. Hightower returned on July 11th, and purchased the murder weapon and ammunition. (T. 718-722).
An autopsy revealed that victim Evelyn Reaves was killed as a result of a gunshot wound to the head. (T. 798). She had been shot twice in the left side of the head, one bullet having entered from the front of the head and a second bullet having entered from the rear of the head, which proved to be the fatal shot. (T. 797-798). Autopsies of victims Dorothy Hightower and Sandra Reaves also showed that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. (T. 803, 805). Dorothy Hightower sustained a single gunshot wound to the head, while victim Sandra Reaves sustained two gunshot wounds to the left side of the head. (T. 803-804).
Jay Jarvis of the State Crime Laboratory testified that test bullets fired from the murder weapon fits those found at the crime scene. (T. 811). Dr. Kenneth Alonzo, a pathologist, testified that unburned powder particles surrounding the gunshot wounds of the victims indicated that the muzzle to target distance was less than 12 inches from the temple of victim Sandra Reaves, and slightly more than 12 inches away from the temple of victim Dorothy Hightower. (T. 827-828). Witness John G. Wagel, Jr., a forensic serologist with the State Crime Laboratory testified that blood found on clothing taken from the Petitioner could have come from victim Sandra Reaves. (T. 832- 833).
The jury found the Hightower guilty on all three counts of murder. (T. 1061-1062). After the sentencing phase of the trial, wherein the state put up no additional evidence of aggravating circumstances (T. 1069), and the Petitioner put up evidence in mitigation (T. 1072-1349), and the state put up rebuttal witnesses (T. 1350-1375), the jury found the existence of the statutory aggravating circumstances that the murder of Dorothy Hightower was committed while Hightower was engaged in the murder of Evelyn Reaves, that the murder of Sandra Reaves was committed while Hightower was engaged in the murder of Dorothy Hightower, and that the murder of Evelyn Reaves was committed while Hightower was engaged in the murder of Sandra Reaves. (T. 1470-1471). The trial court thereafter sentenced Hightower to death for the murder convictions. (T. 1476-1477).
The Trial (1984)
Hightower was initially indicted during the July 1987 term in the Superior Court of Baldwin County. Hightower was reindicted for the January 1988 term. A jury found Hightower guilty on three counts of murder on May 3, 1988. The jury’s recommendation of a death sentence was returned on May 4, 1988.
The Direct Appeal (1989-1990)
The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Hightower’s conviction and sentence on November 30, 1989. Hightower v. State, 259 Ga. 770, 386 S.E.2d 509 (1989). Hightower’s motion for reconsideration was denied on December 22, 1989. Hightower filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on October 1, 1990. Hightower v. Georgia, 480 U.S. 882, 111 S.Ct.230 (1990). Hightower’s motion for rehearing was denied on November 26, 1990. Hightower v. Georgia, 498 U.S. 995, 111 S.Ct. 549 (1990).
State Habeas Corpus Petition (1991-1995) Hightower, represented by Michael Mears, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Butts County, Georgia on July 9, 1991. Evidentiary hearings were held on January 25, 1993. On June 16, 1993, the state habeas court granted motions filed by Thomas Dunn and Jeffrey Ertel to assist in the case of Hightower. On January 18, 1994, the state habeas corpus court denied Hightower state habeas corpus relief. Hightower’s application for a certificate of probable cause to appeal filed in the Georgia Supreme Court was denied on November 3, 1994. Hightower’s Motion for Reconsideration was denied on December 2, 1994. Hightower then filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on June 26, 1995. Hightower v. Thomas, 515 U.S. 1162 (1995). Hightower filed a petition for rehearing in the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on September 1, 1995. Hightower v. Thomas, 515 U.S. 1183 (1995). Federal Habeas Corpus Petition (1996-2001)
Hightower, represented by John C. Pierce, Timothy K. Armstrong, and Joseph J. Weissman filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia on November 25, 1996. On August 9, 1999, the district court denied Hightower federal habeas corpus relief. The district court denied a motion to alter and amend judgment on September 27, 2000. The district court granted Hightower a certificate of appealability on January 23, 2001.
11th Circuit Court of Appeals (2001-2004)
The case was orally argued before the Eleventh Circuit on December 5, 2001. On April 12, 2004, the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion which denied relief. Hightower v. Schofield, 365 F.3d 1008 (11th Cir. 2004). Hightower filed a petition for panel rehearing on May 10, 2004, which was denied on June 4, 2004.
United States Supreme Court (2005)
Hightower filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court on November 1, 2004, which was granted on June 20, 2005. In granting the petition, the United States Supreme Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration in light of Miller El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005).
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (2005-2006)
Upon remand, both parties were directed by the Eleventh Circuit to file briefs regarding the application of Miller-El v. Dretke to Hightower’s case. Both parties filed briefs on September 16, 2005. On August 8, 2006, the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion holding that Miller-El did not change their disposition of Hightower’s Batson claim and the prior opinion was reinstated. Hightower filed a petition for rehearing, which was denied on September 11, 2006.
United States Supreme Court (2007)
Hightower filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court on February 8, 2007, which was denied on May 14, 2007.