Georgia House members voted Thursday night to compensate three former U.S. Army soldiers for the 25 years they lost in prison before their murder convictions were overturned.
The legislation, which passed with wide bipartisan support, now moves to the state Senate for consideration. The trio of bills would pay Mark Jones, Kenny Gardiner and Dominic Lucci $1 million each. The money would be paid out over 20 years, as is typical in such cases. An economist hired by Karsman McKenzie Hart, the Savannah law firm representing the veterans, found that they would have made $3 million if they had stayed in the military, as they’d planned to do before they were charged with murder in 1992.
The soldiers, who were the subjects of a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article and have always maintained their innocence, are tremendously relieved to be free, but the damage to their lives is done.
“I’ve always been that guy who wanted the American Dream — the family, the home, the two and a half kids. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, what I’ve always dreamed of,” said Jones, who was 20 when he was arrested and is now nearing 50. “And the odds of that happening now are pretty slim.”
The Fort Stewart soldiers were arrested in Savannah on Jan. 31, 1992, in the murder of Stanley Jackson, a 35-year-old Marine veteran who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting while walking along the street. The defendants were in town for a bachelor party for Jones, who was supposed to marry the next morning but had to call off the wedding.
On the way to a strip club, the soldiers got lost and asked a police officer for directions. The officer happened to be walking the shooting’s only eyewitness, the Rev. James White, into a police station for an interview. White told the officer that the soldiers’ vehicle, a black sports car, resembled the one driven by the shooters. White later identified the defendants as the men he’d seen kill Jackson, though he has since said he was lying because of intense pressure from officials and community leaders to help solve the case.
The state painted the trio, who are white, as racists who shot a black man at random for the thrill of killing. Prosecutors claimed the men were motivated in part by fantasy games including Dungeons and Dragons.
They spent 25 years in prison before the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously overturned their convictions and ordered a new trial in December 2017. The district attorney’s office announced a year later that it was dropping all charges.
Since their release, the friends have struggled financially, mentally and socially. Jones and Gardiner live on the Gulf Coast of Texas, working seven days a week, cleaning vacation rental homes. They live in RVs barely bigger than prison cells. Lucci lives in Ohio and only recently found a job after two years of putting in applications.
State Rep. J. Craig Gordon, D-Savannah, sponsored the legislation to compensate the trio. As introduced, it would have paid each $3 million. A committee lowered the amount to $1 million each. The soldiers have said they would still be happy with the lower amount.
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