COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – Seventeen years after Kirby Smith was shot to death in his Columbus, Ga., automobile repair shop, the two prime suspects are now free from prosecution.
Superior Court Judge Gil McBride issued a sweeping ruling late Wednesday. He dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning Smith’s estranged wife, Rebecca Haynie, and her friend, Donald Keith Phillips, can never be tried for Smith’s murder.
Rebecca Haynie and Donald Keith Phillips were arrested on a circumstantial case six years ago following an investigation by “Cold Justice,” a true-crime television show.
In his ruling, Judge Gil McBride slammed the marriage of justice and television. One line stands out near the end of McBride’s ruling.
“This order is the outcome that results naturally when forensic inquiry and the pursuit of truth are confused with entertainment,” McBride stated in his order.
According to attorney John Martin, who represents Phillips, the problem wasn’t just the TV show.
“The state had continually not been able to provide the discovery,” Martin said. “And again, they were not ready and could not proceed to trial. And ultimately the judge said that’s enough. He said justice delayed is justice denied.”
More than 30 terms of court have passed since Haynie and Phillips were arrested.
With a Dec. 6 trial date looming, the District Attorney’s Office told McBride that it intended to dismiss the case. They argued he should dismiss it without prejudice, in case new evidence surfaced.
“All concerned in this case are entitled to finality, which the Court aimed to achieve with its order of Oct. 28, 2021, and will now bring about with this order,” McBride wrote. “
The October order eliminated the state from seeking the death penalty.
This case has touched three district attorneys – Julia Slater who brought in the TV show and indicted it; Mark Jones who upped the charges to capital murder; and Sheneka Terry who ultimately dismissed it.
McBride pinned the problem on Slater and Jones. He noted that current Acting DA Sheneka Terry and her prosecutors were not the issue.
“They inherited a case badly compromised by the actions of their predecessors,” McBride wrote in his order.
According to Martin, the problems were failure to disclose evidence – including raw footage from the TV show. And it was evidence the judge had ordered prosecutors to turn over.
“The state had continually not been able to provide the discovery. And again, they were not ready and could not proceed to trial. And ultimately the judge said that’s enough. He said justice delayed is justice denied,” said Martin.
McBride said the state’s tactics throughout this case have been, “ready, fire, aim.”
Haynie’s attorney, Jason Sheffield of Decatur, compared the state’s case to a race car.
For over five years, the state has promised the defense and the court that their case is ‘race-ready,” Sheffield said. “On four prior occasions, we found ourselves at the starting line but unable to move forward because the state failed to provide necessary exculpatory information.”
By the state’s failure to be ready for trial on December 6, and instead nolle pros/dismiss the indictment, the court found itself facing a decision, Sheffield said.
“The defense pushed the court to dismiss the case with prejudice which the court has decided to do,” Sheffield said. “The cause of its decision: the state’s car didn’t even have an engine – they had no case after all.”