In a surprising move, Dannie Lee Samuels, whose death penalty trial was suppose to take place in McDuffie County Superior Court later this year, has waived a jury trial and opted to have his case heard by a judge in a bench trial. As a result of such a recent decision on his part and his defense lawyers, prosecutors have now indicated they will not seek the death penalty against him as previously planned, The McDuffie Mirror has learned.
With the death penalty no longer hanging in the balance, Mr. Samuels now stands to face a penalty of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, if the judge finds him guilty.
It also means that McDuffie County government officials will stand to save somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 or more.
The case is expected to come before Toombs Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway, Jr., during the next term of bench trials. The latest action came during a Jan. 28 hearing before Judge Dunaway, who signed a consent order granting the waiver of a jury trial by the defendant.
Mr. Samuels is accused of raping and slaying 53-year-old Barbara Hefner at her home off White Oak Road near Thomson in March 2004.
Mr. Samuels, formerly of a Shank Street address in Thomson, is charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated battery, concealing a death and statutory aggravated circumstances, according to court records. Mr. Samuels has maintained his innocence since being arrested for the crimes by McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall.
It is alleged that the majority of the crimes occurred inside the residence of Ms. Hefner, whose body later was taken from her home and dumped into the waters of Folly Lake in McDuffie County. Her body wasn't discovered until March 6, 2004.
DNA evidence taken from the scene of the crime was what initially pointed law enforcement authorities in the direction of Mr. Samuels. He is a twice-convicted felon, having been convicted of burglary in 1993 and for the illegal possession of a firearm in 1997, according to previous published reports in The Mirror.
After Mr. Samuels made his feelings known to the court, Judge Dunaway rendered an order granting the defendant's waiver for a jury trial. Aside from the judge's name being affixed, the court order also included the signatures of Mr. Samuels, his defense attorneys, Joseph Vigneri, and Joseph Romond and Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis C. Sanders. Judge Dunaway cited four specific reasons for his ruling:
• The defendant has been fully and completely informed and advised of the right to have the above-styled case tried before a jury and further acknowledges that a trial by jury is a valuable, constitutional right;
• The State of Georgia, through the District Attorney's Office, is prepared to try the defendant's case before the next available and qualified trial jury;
• The defendant does not wish this case to be tried before a jury, "but rather requests that the case be tried before the presiding judge" in McDuffie County Superior Court without the intervention of a jury. "The judge shall act as the finder of fact and law and shall impose sentence, if defendant is found guilty;" and
• The defendant, personally, knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waives the right to a jury trial.