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Telfair Co. double murder indictment tossed on technicality

Elrey and June Runion
Elrey and June Runion(Facebook)
Updated: Oct. 22, 2019 at 12:48 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (WALB) - The Georgia Supreme Court Monday upheld a trial court’s decision to toss out a grand jury’s indictment against a double-murder suspect because the grand jury was “not chosen at random.”

The murder indictment was brought against Ronnie Adrian “Jay” Towns for the 2015 murders of Elrey and June Runion, who had driven from North Georgia to Telfair County to examine a classic Mustang that was listed for sale on Craigslist.

Ronnie Adrian "Jay" Towns
Ronnie Adrian "Jay" Towns(Telfair Co. Sheriff)

In this highly publicized case that WALB covered, Towns was charged with luring the elderly couple from their Marietta home under the pretense of selling them the car.

The State announced it would seek the death penalty in this brutal double-murder.

According to the record following Towns’ arrest, the Telfair County Superior Court summoned 50 people for possible service on the grand jury, but fewer than 16 reported, and 16 is the minimum.

The bodies of the Runions were found near this spot
The bodies of the Runions were found near this spot(WALB)

Sheriff Chris Steverson tried to find those who failed to appear, and Judge Sarah Wall ordered the clerk to supplement the number of jurors with people who had been summoned to appear as trial jurors.

Clerk Belinda Thomas identified four possible jurors who could be located quickly, and reached out to them. Two reported, and two said they couldn’t right then. Then several citizens who had been summoned but failed to report showed up, either on their own or at the request of the sheriff.

An issue in this appeal is whether all the grand jurors who indicted Towns were randomly chosen. The State argued they were. The trial court disagreed. “And so do we,” Justice Keith R. Blackwell wrote in the 7-2 opinion.

But Justice John J. Ellington, who was joined by Justice Michael P. Boggs, both of whom were trial court judges, disagreed with the decision to throw out the indictment, even though technically, the grand jury was not picked totally at random.

Timothy Vaughn, Oconee Circuit District Attorney
Timothy Vaughn, Oconee Circuit District Attorney(Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Ga.)

“I do not believe that the clerk of court’s method in this case for securing grand jurors from the list of persons who had been summoned to appear for service as trial jurors constituted a disregard of the ‘essential and substantial’ provisions of the new statutory scheme governing jury selection such that it vitiated the array,” wrote Ellington.

District Attorney Timothy Vaughn, who has been the prosecutor in the Oconee Circuit for 25 years, said Tuesday that he would immediately file a motion of reconsideration. If necessary, he will ask another grand jury for a new indictment of Towns, who remains in the Dodge County jail.

Vaughn told WALB from his Eastman office that the root of the issue with too few jurors lies in the way jury pools are comprised, since the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the old jury commission method of setting jury lists. Georgia now relies on a computer system, and the addresses of citizens are frequently outdated or in error, Vaughn said.

He said that under the old method, they would summon 30 citizens and get 20 to 25 jurors, but now, summoning 50 citizens may not yield the required 16 minimum.

Vaughn said his office intends to proceed with a death penalty murder trial of Towns, adding “we will get justice for the Runion family.”

The attorneys for the state were Vaughn and Keely Pitts, assistant district attorney.

Towns’ attorneys were Gabrielle Pittman, Nathanial Studelska, Franklin Hogue and J. Travis Griffin.

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