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Judge could bar future prosecution of 2004 murder suspects

December 4, 2021 GMT

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia judge is deciding whether he will agree with prosecutors’ request to dismiss murder charges in a 2004 fatal shooting where charges were filed after the involvement of a true crime reality show.

Muscogee County Assistant District Attorney Robin Anthony on Nov. 22 filed a motion to drop the murder charges against Rebecca Haynie and Donald Keith Phillips in the death of William Kirby Smith Jr. in Columbus.

The Ledger-Enquirer reports Anthony wrote that “the state believes it cannot meet the standard of proof at trial.”

The state wants the charges dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could later be refiled. Defense lawyers want the charges dismissed with prejudice, meaning they couldn’t be refiled.

Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Gil McBride told lawyers after a Wednesday court hearing that he will decide what to do by Christmas.

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Anthony said her current boss, acting District Attorney Sheneka Terry, does not intend to refile charges, but acknowledged a future district attorney could bring them back.

Haynie and Phillips are charged with murder in the 2004 homicide of Haynie’s then-husband Kirby Smith inside Kirby’s Speed Shop in Columbus. Prosecutors alleged Haynie, who was Kirby’s estranged wife, conspired with her lover Phillips to kill Kirby, shooting him twice.

Prosecutors already were facing a possible dismissal for disobeying court orders to provide materials to the defense, including evidence related to “Cold Justice,” a show that featured the suspects’ arrests.

Foss Hodges, one of Haynie’s attorneys, told McBride his client shouldn’t face the threat of future prosecution.

“They would have to live with that for the rest of their lives,” Hodges said. He said prosecution delays in sharing evidence have already “irreversibly violated” the defendants’ right to a speedy trial.

Phillips attorney John Martin also asked the judge to block further prosecution. He said prolonged delays have drained the defendants’ finances. “The reason for the vast majority of the delay rests with the state,” he added.

During a preliminary hearing in 2014, investigators said they immediately considered the estranged wife a suspect, as she and Smith were involved in a contentious divorce, and Smith claimed evidence of his wife’s infidelity.

But police didn’t arrest the pair until June 15, 2014, after producers of the “Cold Justice” show got involved. The arrests were featured in an episode that aired a month later.

Defense attorneys demanded materials from the show. McBride ordered prosecutors to hand it over, but they never did,

McBride punished prosecutors by ruling they could not use evidence from “Cold Justice.”

Haynie attorney Jason Sheffield called the hearing “a momentous day” for his client, saying the state now concedes there are alternate theories about who killed Smith.

“The state has decided and finally concluded that it cannot win this case if it were to go to trial,” Sheffield told WRBL-TV. “The state concedes that this is a circumstantial case at best.”