Murder convictions don’t usually result in public sympathy for the accused, but the case of Gary Heinze Jr. has sparked public calls for a new trial following a documentary that revealed flaws in the police investigation and trial.
Vocal supporters have emerged in both Canada and Britain, and more than 1,700 people have signed a petition calling for a new trial. Various groups have sprung up on Facebook and a Twitter hastag and handle have been created to raise support for Heinze to hire a new legal team.
Heinze was convicted in the 2009 beating death of eight members of his family at the New Hope trailer park in Brunswick, Ga. He was 22 at the time.
After the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the judge removed a female juror who felt Heinze was not guilty, replacing her with an alternate juror. Heinze was convicted in October 2013 of eight counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Investigation comes into question
Jurors told the BBC documentary Life and Death Row last year that they had difficulties determining what really happened because of a lack of physical evidence, no clear motive and concerns raised by the defence about the failure of police investigators to collect DNA that might have either exonerated Heinze or given a clearer picture of his guilt.
The documentary also interviewed experts who suggested the police investigation was hasty and lacked the diligence expected in a multiple murder case.
Investigators did not collect DNA samples from the scene. Bloody clothes seen in the bathroom, bloody hand marks and fingerprints seen elsewhere were also not collected for evidence.
Those killed included three men, a woman and four teenaged youths – Heinze’s father, aunt and uncle and four cousins. All were capable of defending themselves and there was no evidence they were drugged or bound.
Autopsy results showed each victim sustained dozens of wounds from being hit with a blunt object, fracturing skulls and teeth, breaking bones and in some cases, showing defensive wounds. It took two days of testimony by the coroner to list all the injuries.
During the trial, it was revealed Heinze called 911 after returning to the mobile home and finding the beaten bodies. Despite their horrific condition, Heinze didn’t have any cuts, bruises or abrasions when he was examined shortly after calling police.
Police became suspicious because Heinze’s only alibi was that he had been smoking crack and marijuana alone at a park all night and came home to find the bodies.
“No man, that’s my family and I love them to death,” Heinze said when asked by police if he did it.
Glynn County Police chief Matthew Doering told media at the time: “The biggest challenge was if one person did this, how do we prove that.” Local media speculated the crime may have been motivated by a drug deal or a dispute over money.
Michael Knox, a forensic expert for the defence, said there was a lack of physical evidence against Heinze.
“It’s not that there isn’t much, or just a little, there is nothing that puts him in that scene. It was very clear that this was not carried out by one person alone,” Knox said.
Knox added there was clothing in a bathroom that had blood dripped on it and was photographed by police. “But they never collected any of it. And the fact is that none of the victims were ever in that bathroom, so if it’s not Guy Heinze’s DNA, then there is somebody else out there that’s involved in this crime,” Knox told BBC.
Knox told the court he believed investigators went into the scene with a theory that Guy Heinze had done the killings and so they only looked for and collected evidence that would support that theory.
Family says corruption at play
Heinze’s grandmother, Jean Usher, said she believes Doering’s team didn’t look far enough. “Glynn County Police set out to deliberately frame Guy,” she told Yahoo Canada News.
“He definitely didn’t get a fair trial. There wasn’t even an attempt to investigate the case properly. It was clear that they wanted to railroad him,” she said from her home in North Carolina.
“The first attorney Guy had told him that he was going down for this crime and Guy told him they couldn’t have any evidence because he didn’t do the crime, and he was told they would plant it if they needed too. This is corruption all the way.”
Guy’s younger brother Tyler has stood unflinchingly beside his brother. Like his grandmother, he says Guy was not a confrontational or violent person, and certainly not willing to kill his father, aunt, uncle and cousins.
“I have no parents left and besides my grandmother, my brother is all I had left,” said the younger Heinze, whose mother died of a drug overdose when he was 11 and Guy was 17.
“There were problems with the investigation. There were glaring leads that could of been investigated but the police were set on my brother and didn’t have any intention of going further.”
Heinze’s lead defence attorney agrees with Tyler’s assessment.
“It was decided by law enforcement within the first hour that Guy was the chief and only suspect,” Newell Hamilton told BBC.
The strongest forensic evidence leading to Heinze’s conviction came from victims’ blood spots on a pair of gym shorts worn the morning he found his family dead. The problem was the stain was on gym shorts worn under a pair of unstained khaki shorts.
“How does the blood get on those when he was wearing shorts over them?” State prosecutor John B. Johnson told BBC.
Heinze told police it must have been picked up when he went through the mobile home, and at one point, sat on a bed.
The defence admitted the blood evidence hurt their case, but suggested it was far from being a smoking gun as there was no blood anywhere else on Heinze.
A shotgun was found in his vehicle, while the wooden stock of a second shotgun was found at the residence. Police believe the missing metal barrel from that weapon was used to kill the family.
Jury deliberations turbulent
For the jury, deliberations were broken up by frequent arguments and disagreements, the documentary shows. After several hours, they took a vote and it was 9-3 in favour of a guilty verdict. The foreman told BBC one juror, who believed Heinze was guilty, said nothing would convince him to change his mind. When the same question was put to the three who at that point believed Heinze was not guilty, one juror said she would not change her mind.
The arguments continued the next morning, the documentary shows, and notes came out to the court that singled out juror 152 who believed Heinze should not be convicted.
Usually, a hung jury means an end to the trail and the process has to begin again after a new jury is chosen. In this case, the defence and prosecution both told BBC they agreed to allow the judge to dismiss juror 152 in hopes of reaching a verdict.
The judge then brought in an alternate juror and deliberations began from scratch, jurors said. Early on they asked the new female juror if she wanted to take a vote, according to the foreman. When she agreed, they came back with a unanimous guilty verdict.
Ironically, had the defence not agreed with the dismissal of the juror, Heinze would likely have had a new trial, according to the documentary and comments from Heinze’s family members to Yahoo Canada News. Instead, he was convicted on all eight charges and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. The state agreed to take the death sentence off the table in exchange for getting a juror replaced.
Yahoo Canada News reached Heinze by mail at Georgia’s Valdasta State Prison.
Heinze proclaimed his innocence and welcomed the support he is receiving on social media, including those who have promised to help raise money to try to appeal for a new trial.
“What has been done to me isn’t justice, not for me or my family,” Heinze wrote in reply to a letter from Yahoo Canada News.
“You asked how I was coping, well, the honest answer is the best way I can,” Heinze wrote. “I am definitely holding out hope to get a retrial and be free. I pray about it daily.”
“I never thought our justice system actually put innocent people in prison – shows me how much I knew before all this.”