Dannie Lee Samuels was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole Aug. 20 for the brutal slaying of 53-year-old Barbara Hefner after a bench trial in McDuffie County Superior Court.
The 34-year-old Mr. Samuels was convicted of strangling Ms. Hefner by Toombs Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway Jr. after nearly three days of testimony.
Ms. Hefner was raped and murdered in her home off White Oak Road near Thomson on March 6, 2004. Her nude body later was found floating in Folly Lake off Stagecoach Road in McDuffie County.
Judge Dunaway deliberated nearly two hours before returning a guilty verdict Aug. 19.
McDuffie County Superior Court Clerk Connie Cheatham read the verdict to a hushed court gallery.
The sentencing phase of the case, including victim impact statements from family members of Ms. Hefner, as well as relatives speaking on behalf of Mr. Samuels, began the following day.
Ms. Hefner had been Mr. Samuels' supervisor at Augusta Coating Co. in Thomson.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Mr. Samuels after his arrest and taped confession about the killing. But earlier this year, Mr. Samuels decided to waive his right to a jury trial, opting instead to have a bench trial before Judge Dunaway. In exchange, District Attorney Dennis C. Sanders agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Judge Dunaway merged two of the counts against Mr. Samuels -- felony murder and aggravated assault with the charge of malice murder -- and sentenced Mr. Samuels to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Judge Dunaway sentenced Mr. Samuels to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for the rape charge.
In addition, Mr. Samuels' conviction on charges of aggravated sodomy and aggravated battery brought 15 years imprisonment on each count, with a sentence of 10 years for a charge of concealing a death.
Mr. Samuels' defense lawyers have not indicated whether they will appeal. He was represented by Joseph Romond and Joseph Vigneri of the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender in Atlanta.
Mr. Sanders, who was assisted by Chief Assistant District Attorney Durwood R. Davis, said he was pleased with both the conviction and sentence.
"We worked a lot of hours to bring this case to trial," Mr. Sanders told The McDuffie Mirror . "I think the verdict and sentencing fit the crimes in this particular case."
Family members vented some of their emotions after Mr. Samuels' conviction by holding hands in a prayer circle on the sidewalk of the courthouse.
Samuels takes the stand
In a surprising move during the trial, Mr. Samuels took the stand in his own defense.
He claimed that a 45-minute taped confession he gave McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Doug Parker in March 2004 was "made up." Another time, he described his comments as "junk" when speaking with Sheriff Marshall and Agent Parker.
In court testimony, Mr. Samuels said, "I made it up."
The taped confession was played in court.
Mr. Samuels said he knew nothing about Ms. Hefner's murder until he returned to work after the weekend. He said it wasn't until that Monday that he heard from co-workers' comments that she had been killed.
Mr. Samuels also claimed he was tricked by Sheriff Marshall into providing statements about the crimes, even though he signed a statement form afterward. Mr. Samuels recalled having been read his Miranda rights by Agent Parker prior to agreeing to talk with authorities.
Under questioning by Mr. Romond, Mr. Samuels said he had visited Ms. Hefner at her home on the night of March 4, 2004. He said the two had consensual sex. He said he left her home about 9 p.m. and didn't see her again until the following day at work.
Mr. Samuels said the two of them never expressed any anger toward one another that day.
When he first spoke with authorities at the GBI Region 7 office in Thomson, Mr. Samuels denied he knew Ms. Hefner on a personal basis or had ever had sexual relations with her.
"I repeatedly said no, because I didn't like the way he was (Agent Parker) going with things at the time," Mr. Samuels testified.
Authorities later learned that Mr. Samuels not only knew where Ms. Hefner lived, but had been going to her home to obtain signatures for work order deliveries and had developed a personal relationship with her.
After Agent Parker left the room, Sheriff Marshall talked with Mr. Samuels, a man whom the sheriff had befriended years earlier when he was in jail and made a trustee so that Mr. Samuels could get his high school education.
"He (the sheriff) was very considerate," Mr. Samuels recalled.
The defendant said he remembered the talk with Sheriff Marshall being "more or less a conversation" at the GBI office. At the time, Mr. Samuels said he was "terrified" and was led to believe that his case was being racially handled.
He said he was told that all the odds were against him and that semen found in Ms. Hefner would be used against him as DNA evidence.
"Basically, I was guilty by association," Mr. Samuels said, noting that Sheriff Marshall explained to him that the crimes he was being accused of could be punishable by the death penalty.
'Today is the truth'
Under cross examination by Mr. Sanders, Mr. Samuels said he "lied" about his personal involvement with Ms. Hefner. "Today is the truth," Mr. Samuels said, having repeated the words of the prosecutor.
Mr. Sanders questioned Mr. Samuels about how he knew certain things about the crime. He again indicated he heard those things from co-workers, including some of the items authorities had discovered when Ms. Hefner's body was recovered from Folly Lake.
During the interview with Sheriff Marshall and Agent Parker, Mr. Samuels was allowed a cigarette break and spoke with Teddy Jackson, his second cousin, who at the time was a special agent with the GBI. Mr. Jackson, now retired and working as an investigator with the Louisville Police Department, testified that he told Mr. Samuels it was important for him to tell authorities the truth.
Later, Mr. Samuels agreed to a taped interview in which he spoke about the crime in detail. Those statements were used in the trial, as was DNA evidence.