Antonia "Toni" Renee Lowe claimed she hit a deer while driving her SUV on the night of Sept. 1, 2006. But jurors who heard two days of testimony in McDuffie County Superior Court in Thomson begged to differ and returned a verdict of guilty as to the charge of malice murder against the Hephzibah woman last Wednesday.
Ms. Lowe, the mother of four children, later was sentenced by Toombs Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Roger W. Dunaway Jr. to life in prison for the murder of 47-year-old Lula Bell Scott, of Thomson.
Her daughter, 17, and sons, ages, 15, 14 and 6, are expected to be cared for by family members.
A jury of five men and seven women deliberated for only 39 minutes before returning the verdict, which came less than five minutes after they returned from a lunch break.
Two other charges in which Ms. Lowe had been indicted on -- felony murder and aggravated assault -- were merged with the conviction charge of malice murder, according to McDuffie County Superior Court Clerk Connie Cheatham. Mrs. Cheatham read the jury's verdict to a hushed courtroom consisting of mostly family members of Ms. Scott and Ms. Lowe.
Martha Clark, of Thomson, a second cousin of Ms. Scott, said after the trial that she was pleased with the verdict and the sentencing.
"Lula Bell was a very meek person," Ms. Clark said. "This was a terrible crime and we're all still suffering because of it."
Johnny Lee Collins, of Atlanta, also a second cousin of Ms. Scott, said, "This is really sad because it affects two families. That's the saddest thing of it all."
Asked whether Ms. Lowe plans to file an appeal of the conviction, her defense attorney, Michael Garrett, of Augusta, said, "My client and I are going to sit down and review the situation before making a decision about whether or not to appeal."
Ms. Lowe took the stand in her own defense last Tuesday and contended that she never killed, cut or harmed Ms. Scott in any way.
"I think I got along with her very good," said Ms. Lowe when asked about her relationship with Ms. Scott by Mr. Garrett.
Ms. Lowe, a former substitute lunchroom employee with the Richmond County Board of Education in Augusta, said she and Ms. Scott's daughter, Clarice Billings, lived together at her home in Hephzibah.
The defendant said that she and Ms. Billings were romantically and sexually involved while being cross-examined by Toombs Judicial Circuit Chief Assistant District Attorney Durwood Davis.
During closing arguments last Wednesday morning, Mr. Garrett told jurors that his client was facing the most important issue in her life and that it was up to them to decide whether Ms. Lowe was guilty of the murder beyond reasonable doubt.
"All killings are not murders," Mr. Garrett explained, noting that Judge Dunaway would instruct them about another charge of voluntary manslaughter before they began deliberations.
He also talked about the possibility of the case having been vehicular homicide in the first degree where someone failed to stop and render aid to a seriously injured person.
Those kinds of killings would be lesser included offenses, he said.
Mr. Garrett said the case against his client was purely circumstantial and that there had been no direct evidence presented during trial to say for a fact what exactly happened on that country road back in the summer of 2006.
The defense attorney said the fact that Ms. Lowe had been indicted by a grand jury was not evidence of her guilt.
"She pleaded not guilty," Mr. Garrett said. "She said she didn't know what happened to Lula Bell Scott. She didn't have to take the stand. And she answered all of my questions when she did."
Mr. Garrett also said his client's ex-boyfriend, Charles Curry, of Athens, Ga., made an anonymous phone call to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation telling them that Ms. Lowe was the killer and that she had confessed the crime to him the weekend it occurred.
He said Mr. Curry gave two different versions of what supposedly happened, based on his conversation with Ms. Lowe.
Mr. Curry, the father of Ms. Lowe's youngest son, testified for the state during the trial.
"He had a motive," Mr. Garrett said. "He would get custody of their child, if she was convicted. I don't think this is the sort of person that can be trusted."
Mr. Garrett said that once GBI Special Agent Teddy Jackson, now retired, determined that Mr. Curry was the caller, they relied totally on him.
Mr. Davis said in his closing comments that when it comes to reasonable doubt that is not necessary for the state to prove absolute certainty.
The chief assistant prosecutor also talked to jurors about what the evidence reflected in the case, saying that GBI Crime Scene Specialist Steve Foster found and located the body of Lula Bell Scott 31 feet off Story Randall Road and that dental records were used to identify the victim.
Testimony revealed that Ms. Scott weighed 260 pounds and that when found her body was lying on top of a six-foot tree.
Mr. Davis said there was a debris field of vehicle parts near where Ms. Scott's body was found.
"It was not our doing -- not our handi-work," Mr. Davis said. "It was the doing of the defendant."
Mr. Davis also reminded jurors of the testimony concerning how Ms. Scott died.
She had multiple fractures about her body, including a broken pelvis and all 24 of her ribs either fractured or broken.
He told jurors to remember the testimony of one of the state's expert witnesses, Dr. Frederick Snow. He testified that it would have taken "great force" to have broken Ms. Scott's pelvis.
Mr. Davis said Mr. Garrett attempted to get Dr. Snow to talk about the rim of possibilities.
"That borders on fantasy," the chief assistant prosecutor said.
Ms. Lowe, according to Mr. Davis, wanted to control the purse string in her home in Hephzibah. She didn't have a job, but yet had three automobiles in her name. He pointed out that Ms. Lowe and Ms. Scott's daughter, Clarice Billings, were romantic sexually and that Ms. Scott "didn't roll that way."
Mr. Davis also brought up the fact that after Ms. Lowe ran over Ms. Scott in her SUV that she tried to establish an alibi and get Lisa Dorsey to say she was with her when she hit a deer going to Washington, Ga. Ms. Dorsey testified that she was never with Ms. Lowe.
He defended his brief questioning of Ms. Lowe when she took the stand.
"The woman was lying," Mr. Davis said. "It's that simple."
Mr. Davis contended that Ms. Lowe wanted Ms. Dorsey to lie for her -- provide an alibi for having hit a deer in McDuffie County.
"It went way beyond lying to an insurance company," Mr. Davis said.
"It was another way to show how manipulative she (Ms. Lowe) was and controlling."