Crime and punishment
Alexander Cain - The Union-Recorder
February 02, 2009
— A 1998 death penalty case
tried in Baldwin County will be re-visited later this year
through the Investigation Discovery Network.
On Oct. 2, 1998, after a
nine-day trial, a jury of eight men and four women took only two
hours to convict John Anthony Esposito for the 1996 bludgeoning
death of 90-year-old Lola Davis of Lumberton, N.C.
Esposito, now 33 and
awaiting execution on Georgia’s death row at the Georgia
Diagnostic and Classification prison in Jackson, and his
girlfriend, Alicia Woodward, now 31 and serving a life sentence
at Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville, murdered three elderly
people — one a husband and wife couple of 50 years — over a two-week
period in 1996.
“It was savage. There’s no
excuse for beating a 90-year-old lady to death. It was obvious
she had not put up a fight. I knew right away it had to be a
death penalty case,” Bright said Sunday as a crew filmed footage
for the upcoming television airing.
Bright made the remarks
Sunday to a freelance film crew while inside the actual
courtroom where Esposito was tried. The film crew, hired by
Hampton, Va.,-based m2 Pictures, is working with the
Investigation Discovery Network (ID Network), to create episodes
of “Wicked Attractions” for the network.
“It’s a show about the
psychology of couples who kill. Esposito and Woodward are
classic examples of when two people get together and start
feeding off each other’s psychology. It’s not just a coincidence
when two people like this come together,” Anne Rothwell, “Wicked
Attractions” co-executive producer, stated.
The show is presently in re-runs
of its first season, and the Esposito case — tried in Baldwin
County after an accepted change of venue from the Morgan County
location where Davis’ body was discovered outside Madison in
September 1996 — will air later this year as the seventh episode
of 13 for the show’s second season, Rothwell said.
Esposito and Woodward
abducted Davis from a grocery store parking lot on Sept. 19,
1996, after Woodward persuaded Davis to give her a ride from the
store to a location behind a nearby movie theater.
Esposito then jumped into
the car while Woodward took over as driver, kidnapping Davis.
The two then drove more than five hours to Madison where, in a
hayfield only a few miles outside of town, Davis was ordered out
of the car and then bludgeoned to death by Esposito.
“She was supposed to come
back by 2 p.m. and when she didn’t return her husband called the
Lumberton Police Department,” Bright said. “We didn’t know who
she was but she was obviously beaten to death.”
Esposito and Woodward drove
Davis’ car to Alabama, disposing of the car and Davis’ purse.
The car was later found to have fingerprints, palm prints and
footprints matching Esposito’s while Esposito’s DNA was
discovered on a discarded cigarette in the car.
“We had an arrest warrant
issued within two days of Lola Davis being reported missing by
her husband,” Bright said.
That information came in
part involving an investigation and information received from
Woodward’s mother, who had reported Woodward asking for money to
be wired to Lumberton where Davis was reported missing,
according to Bright.
The Investigation Discovery
Network is focusing on the potential motives behind Woodward’s
and Esposito’s behavior, as the two later abducted and murdered
Lawrence Merrill Snider and Marguarite Bertha Snider from
Oklahoma City, Okla.
Lawrence was killed less
than two weeks before his 91st birthday. Marguarite was 86 at
the time of her death. Information surrounding the circumstances
of the murder of the husband and wife couple was later used in
the penalty phase of Esposito’s murder trial.
The bodies of the Sniders
were discovered in Texas on Oct. 3, 1996. Both had been beaten
to death with a tire iron from the trunk of their car.
“We tried him first under a
death sentence in Georgia. The case has been withheld the whole
way,” Bright said. “I’ll be watching [the completed episode],
but it’s not about me. It’s about the case. It was a big case
which stretched across the entire country and involved law
enforcement from North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma,
Texas and Colorado. We literally went to every single crime
scene and talked to every witness. This case would be to me the
epitome of an awesome investigation which required the complete
cooperation of all those law enforcement agencies involved.”
As for the motivations
behind the killings, Bright said serial killer Esposito’s case
was “the worse of the worst” of those he has prosecuted in the
“They went hunting for
elderly people to kill. He would have kept killing until he got
caught — those are not my words but his,” Bright said. “He
admitted that in Colorado [where they were captured] they were
looking for another person to kill. He showed no mercy or
remorse in his killing. When he was captured, he stated ‘I don’t
have any remorse. I don’t have a conscience.’”
Bright will be flown to
Colorado later this month to continue his interview for the ID
Network, this time from the scene where Esposito and Woodward
While in Baldwin County, the
crew filmed Bright walking down a hallway, entering the
courtroom, examining documents and interacting with Chief
Investigator Mark Robinson and Investigator Randy Ellis, who
provided informational assistance for Bright’s interview and who
were also involved with Esposito’s prosecution in 1998.
The crew also filmed
exterior shots of downtown Milledgeville, the Baldwin County
Courthouse, Georgia Military College, the Old Governor’s Mansion,
North Liberty Street homes, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation
office and interior shots of the courtroom where Esposito was
tried for murder.
The Esposito and Woodward
episode of “Wicked Attraction” — currently still unnamed — featuring
Esposito’s trial in Milledgeville will air later this year,
according to Rothwell.
When asked his opinion on
why shows such as “Wicked Attraction” are popular among viewers,
Bright cited similar programs as a motivating factor.
“Everybody watches ‘CSI.’
People are fascinated with solving crimes and courts. We’ve used
a lot of what people would see on ‘CSI.’ We had 258 exhibits [during
the trial],” Bright said. “People are fascinated by serial
ESPOSITO v. THE STATE.
(273 Ga. 183)
(538 SE2d 55)
FLETCHER, Presiding Justice.
Murder. Baldwin Superior Court. Before Judge Prior.
A jury convicted John Anthony Esposito of
murdering Lola Davis and related crimes and fixed his sentence at
death, after finding beyond a reasonable doubt the following
statutory aggravating circumstances: that the murder was committed
during the commission of an armed robbery and a kidnapping with
bodily injury and that the murder was outrageously or wantonly vile,
horrible, or inhuman in that it involved depravity of mind.
1 For the reasons set forth below,
we affirm his convictions and sentences.
1. The evidence adduced at trial, including
testimony recounting Esposito's confession to federal authorities,
showed that on September 19, 1996, Esposito's co-conspirator, Alicia
Woodward, persuaded Lola Davis to give her a ride from a parking lot
in Lumberton, North Carolina.
Woodward directed Davis to a nearby location
where Esposito entered Davis' automobile. Esposito and Woodward then
forced the elderly Davis, without the use of any weapons, to drive
to a nearby parking lot and to move to the passenger seat of her
Esposito removed one thousand dollars and Davis'
checkbook from her purse, and Woodward drove Davis' automobile to a
local bank where she cashed a check for three hundred dollars that
she and Esposito had forced Davis to write.
Woodward and Esposito then drove Davis to a
remote location in Morgan County, Georgia, where Esposito led Davis
into a hayfield, forced her to kneel, and beat her to death with
tree limbs and other debris.
Esposito and Woodward then drove in Davis'
automobile to Alabama where they disposed of Davis' automobile and
purse. Davis' automobile was shown at trial to contain fingerprints,
palm prints, and footprints matching Esposito's and Woodward's.
Saliva on a cigarette butt found in the automobile was shown to
contain DNA consistent with Esposito's DNA.
Evidence presented during the sentencing phase
showed that, after murdering Davis, Esposito and Woodward traveled
to Oklahoma, abducted an elderly couple, illegally obtained money
using the couple's bank card, and then drove the couple to Texas
where Esposito beat them to death with a tire iron. An FBI agent
also testified during the sentencing phase that Esposito had
described his and Woodward's plan to abduct and murder yet another
elderly woman for money.
We find that the evidence adduced at trial,
viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, was sufficient to
authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt
that Esposito was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted and
that statutory aggravating circumstances existed.
2. Esposito contends that the trial court erred
by denying his motion to suppress a confession he made to two FBI
agents during an interview conducted on the night of his arrest. We
find no error.
Testimony heard by the trial court showed that
Esposito and Woodward were observed unlawfully possessing a BB gun
in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park by a park ranger. Esposito
was uncooperative when instructed to lay down the gun, and the park
ranger called for assistance. Park rangers determined that the
automobile Esposito and Woodward were driving had been reported
missing under suspicious circumstances and that there was a warrant
for their arrest.
At approximately 3:00 p.m., a park ranger
informed Esposito that he was under arrest and gave the warnings
required by Miranda v. Arizona. As each portion of his Miranda
warnings was read, Esposito stated "yeah" and nodded affirmatively
Esposito was then asked if he understood his warnings, but, before
he answered, the park ranger stated that he had no questions for
Esposito. Persons who observed Esposito testified that he did not
appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Later that evening, two FBI agents arrived at the
jail where Esposito and Woodward were being held, interviewed
Woodward first, and then interviewed Esposito from 11:35 p.m. until
12:22 a.m. According to testimony by one of the FBI agents, Esposito
was asked before being questioned if he remembered and understood
the warnings he had received earlier that day, particularly the
warning that he was not required to speak with authorities. Esposito
responded that he was willing to make a statement.
The lapse of eleven and one half hours between
Esposito's receiving his Miranda warnings and making his confession
did not render the confession inadmissible. Esposito's reliance on
Riley v. State is misplaced, as we have explicitly held that Riley
is not applicable to adults. Upon our review of the record, we
conclude that the trial court's findings of fact were not clearly
erroneous, and, upon our de novo application of those findings of
fact to the law, we conclude that the trial court's legal conclusion
regarding the confession's admissibility was correct.
3. Esposito argues that execution by
electrocution is cruel and unusual punishment. This issue was
preserved for appeal by the trial court's ruling which allowed
Esposito to adopt motions filed in the case of his co-conspirator,
Alicia Woodward, which included a motion to bar the use of
(a) The continued use of electrocution as
Georgia's sole method of executing persons sentenced to death for
crimes committed before May 1, 2000, presents a troubling moral and
legal issue. Many state legislatures have abandoned electrocution
altogether or have allowed persons previously sentenced to death by
electrocution to elect execution by lethal injection as an
alternative. Grave concerns about the humaneness of electrocution
have been acknowledged by members of this Court and of other courts.
Other jurists, while less concerned with the form
of punishment itself, have recognized the potential for disruption
in the criminal justice system created by the retention of
electrocution as the sole method available for executing certain
prisoners when that method of execution has been so regularly
brought under serious constitutional scrutiny. Such concerns have
led some to suggest a legislative resolution of this ever-looming
concern by adoption of statutes authorizing condemned prisoners to
elect execution by lethal injection as an alternative to other
methods. Unfortunately, legislative resolution of such issues has
sometimes come only after the judiciary has first begun to
At present, only Georgia, Alabama, and Nebraska
retain electrocution as a required method of execution for any
condemned prisoners. With Alabama's use of electrocution presently
under review in federal evidentiary hearings, the continued place of
electrocution in American society has once again been placed in
As said in 1885 by the governor of New York in
calling for a modern, humane replacement for hanging, it might now
be said of electrocution:
"[I]t may well be questioned whether the science
of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of
such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner. I commend
this suggestion to the consideration of the legislature."
Because such fundamental constitutional rights
are at stake, this Court, upon a sufficient evidentiary showing,
would not be unwilling to confront these difficult questions if
necessary, despite our belief that the legislative and executive
branches would be better positioned to assume continued leadership
in this field.
(b) Nevertheless, we conclude that in Esposito's
case there has not been a sufficient proffer of evidence to compel a
present finding that Georgia's practice of execution by
electrocution is cruel and unusual punishment under the state or
4. During the guilt-innocence phase of Esposito's
trial, the parties planned a jury view of the murder scene, but
agreed that the trial judge, the court reporter, and the attorneys
would not attend. However, the chief deputy sheriff of Morgan County,
an investigator in Esposito's case who had already served as a
witness for the state, was permitted to accompany the jury to the
scene and to tell the jury where the body was found. The defendant
did not object to this procedure.
Although not raised as an enumeration of error,
this procedure is troubling and should not be used in the future. As
we have stated before, a trial judge should attend any planned jury
view. Taking a jury from the controlled environment of a courtroom
to a place that has some relevance to the trial always involves the
risk that something unexpected might arise requiring the trial
judge's intervention. A court reporter should also attend any jury
view so that any important statements or events may be thoroughly
reviewed on appeal. The attorneys should also attend, unless their
presence is affirmatively waived.
While a defendant's presence at a jury view that
involves merely the transportation of the jury to a crime scene is
not absolutely required, trial courts should note that a defendant's
presence is mandatory, if not waived by the defendant himself,
whenever testimony or other evidence is presented to the jury.
Special dangers exist whenever a witness at trial, particularly a
law enforcement officer, attends a jury view, and a trial court
should avoid those dangers by excluding such persons.
Finally, because jury views have proved to be
fertile ground for irregularity and, at times, reversible error, the
parties to criminal trials and trial courts should carefully weigh
the real benefits of a jury view before planning one. Frequently, as
in Esposito's case, the jury has already viewed photographs of the
crime scene, and nothing is to be added to the jury's understanding
of the issues to be tried by an in-person visit to the scene. In
such cases, a trial court would be authorized to deny a request for
a jury view.
5. We find that the sentence of death in
Esposito's case was not imposed under the influence of passion,
prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor.
6. Considering both the crime and the defendant,
we find that Esposito's sentence of death was neither excessive nor
disproportionate to the penalties imposed in similar cases.
CARLEY, Justice, concurring specially.
I fully concur in Divisions 1, 2, 5, and 6 and in
the judgment. However, because I cannot agree with Divisions 3 and
4, I write separately.
1. Although Division 3 (b) recognizes that
Esposito failed to make a sufficient proffer of evidence in support
of the proposition that electrocution is cruel and unusual
punishment, Division 3 (a) extensively discusses the issue.
"A statute is presumed to be valid and
constitutional until the contrary appears. . . . (Cits.)" [Cit.] A
presumption arises when a defendant is sentenced within the
statutory limits set by the legislature that such sentence does not
violate the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against cruel and unusual
punishment. Such presumption remains until a defendant sets forth a
factual predicate showing that such legislatively authorized
punishment was so overly severe or excessive in proportion to the
offense as to shock the conscience. [Cit.]
Burgos v. State, 233 Ga.
App. 897, 902 (3), fn. 2 (505 SE2d 543)
(1998). This Court has repeatedly and recently upheld the
constitutionality of the statutory provision for electrocution as a
method of execution. Gissendaner v. State,
272 Ga. 704, 716 (15) (532 SE2d 677)
(2000); Morrow v. State, 272 Ga. 691,
703 (16) (532 SE2d 78) (2000); Holsey
v. State, 271 Ga. 856, 863 (12) (524
SE2d 473) (1999); DeYoung v. State,
268 Ga. 780, 786 (6) (493 SE2d 157)
(1997). Because of the complete absence of any proffer, and in light
of our very recent rulings on this issue, we do not have either
jurisdictional or precedential authority to discuss this issue in
2. Division 4 acknowledges that Esposito did not
object to the procedure used for the jury view. Thus, Esposito
acquiesced in that procedure. Holsey v. State, 271 Ga. at 861 (5).
See also Wilson v. State, 271 Ga. 811,
817 (6) (525 SE2d 339) (1999).
Therefore, the jury view procedure is not before us, and there is no
issue on which we should express an opinion.
I am authorized to state that Justice Thompson
joins in this opinion, and that Justice Hunstein joins in Division 2
and Justice Hines joins in Division 1.
SEARS, Justice, concurring in part and dissenting
I concur in the majority's affirmance of
appellant's adjudication of guilt. However, due to the concerns I
expressed in my partial dissent to Wilson v. State, I dissent to
Division 3 (b) of the majority opinion, and to the affirmance of the
death penalty only to the extent that it requires death by
I am authorized to state that Chief Justice
Benham joins me in this partial concurrence and partial dissent.
1 The crimes occurred on September
19, 1996. Esposito was indicted by a Morgan County grand jury on
December 2, 1996, for malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery, and
hijacking a motor vehicle. The state filed notice of its intent to seek
the death penalty for the murder on January 31, 1997. The trial court
granted an unopposed motion to change venue and moved the trial to the
Superior Court of Baldwin County. A further motion to change venue, made
at the end of voir dire in Baldwin County, was denied. The trial began
on September 23, 1998, and the jury found Esposito guilty on all counts
on September 30, 1998. The jury fixed the sentence for the malice murder
at death on October 2, 1998. The trial court vacated the felony murder
conviction by operation of law, see Malcolm v. State,
263 Ga. 369, 371-372 (4) (434
SE2d 479) (1993); see also OCGA 16-1-7,
and sentenced Esposito to death for the malice murder, life imprisonment
for the armed robbery, and twenty years imprisonment for the motor
vehicle hijacking. Esposito filed a motion for a new trial on October
29, 1998, and a hearing on that motion was held on June 30, 1999. The
trial court denied the motion for a new trial on September 16, 1999.
Esposito filed a notice of appeal on October 11, 1999, the appeal was
docketed in this Court on January 6, 2000, and oral arguments were heard
on April 17, 2000.
Fredric D. Bright, District Attorney,
Thurbert E. Baker, Attorney General, Susan V. Boleyn, Senior
Assistant Attorney General, Karen A. Johnson, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
Roy R. Kelly III, W. Dan Roberts, for
DECIDED OCTOBER 30, 2000 -- RECONSIDERATION
DENIED NOVEMBER 30, 2000.
John Anthony Esposito