Clinton Bankston Jr. turned 17 on May 12, 1988. That was also the day he received five consecutive life sentences. Regardless of your perspective on this case, that’s a terrible birthday present.
In April 1987, police found the bodies of UGA professors Glenn and Rachel Sutton, who had been stabbed multiple times, wrapped in carpet. Later that year, Ann Morris, Sally Nathanson, and Helen Nathanson were found stabbed to death in the Nathansons’ home. The FBI was already working on the cases when a patrol car spotted Sally Nathanson’s Cadillac parked in front of a home on Moreland Avenue.
Bankston, who was 16 at the time, answered the door. Initially, he blamed the murders on Chris, a person who didn’t exist. Later, police charged Bankston with all five murders, mostly based on his inconsistent statements. He eventually pleaded guilty but mentally ill.
In 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court summarily upheld the Bankston convictions, mostly on technical grounds.
Multiple Agency Investigations
Too many cooks spoil the broth. That’s often true whether you’re making lentil soup or investigating one of the most awful crimes in Clarke County history.
In major investigations, inter-department jealousy and lack of communication are often rampant. Typically, multi-agency investigations are a little like G-League basketball games. For the most part, College Park Skyhawks players care nothing about helping the team win. They just want to enhance their own statistics, so they’ll get called up to the Atlanta Hawks.
Communication issues are common as well, especially in the text/chat/email era. Sent communications are easy to verify. However, it’s much harder to show that someone actually read the message and followed-up properly on it.
Communication and jealousy issues often give rise to procedural issues, usually regarding a search or arrest warrant.
Under the U.S. Constitution, judges may only issue warrants if officers present sworn evidence, usually an affidavit, that shows probable cause. Beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard of proof at trial, or reasonable suspicion, the standard of proof for a stop, have specific definitions in Georgia law. However, the definition of probable cause, which is somewhere between these two levels of proof, is rather nebulous.
Most warrants rely heavily, or even almost exclusively, on informer testimony. Therefore, informer reliability, or the lack thereof, may be one of the most common arrest/search warrant issues. The Supremes have wrestled with this issue over and over. Many years ago, the Supreme Court abandoned a strict analysis test, known as the Aguilar/Spinelli test, in favor of a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis. Some factors to consider include:
- Corroborating Evidence: Any such proof greatly enhances a paid informer’s reliability. If the informant rightly says a drug dealer drives a brown car, that’s corroborating proof, even though it has nothing to do with the crimes alleged in the warrant.
- Source: Anonymous sources are almost always unreliable. If the tipster doesn’t vouch for the information, a judge usually shouldn’t believe it. On the other end, information provided by someone like an undercover officer is almost always reliable. Everyone else is in the middle somewhere.
- Informer Motivation: On a similar note, many informers receive immunity or considerable cash in exchange for information. Many people will say practically anything for love or money. Other informers have an axe to grind. Only a few informers are truly concerned citizens with nothing to gain or lose.
Occasionally, officers get lucky, as they did in the Athens murders case. What are the odds that a patrol car would stumble upon a victim’s car on a random side street? Officers probably had reasonable suspicion, which is basically an evidence-based hunch, to knock on the door of that house. If investigators went to a house across the street, a Marietta criminal defense lawyer could easily challenge reasonable suspicion.
Scientific Evidence in Criminal Cases
Fingerprints were basically the only scientific evidence available in the late 1980s. Today, such a murder case would involve a slew of scientific evidence, such as:
- Shoe prints,
- Hair follicles,
- Microbes and whatnot,
- Carpet fibers,
- Blood stains
This evidence looks very compelling on TV. However, police technicians often use collection, analysis, and storage techniques which have little or no scientific basis.
On a related note, the scientific evidence use process has lots of moving parts. A gap in the chain of custody, no matter how brief or slight, casts doubt on the evidence. Because of the high burden of proof, a little doubt could well be reasonable doubt.
If Bankston had been sentenced under today’s laws, he might have received as little as sixty months in a juvenile facility. Given the nature of the crimes, as well as the fact that he allegedly committed multiple murders on multiple occasions, such a light sentence seems unlikely.
However, that possibility underscores an important point. Prosecutors love to roll out scientific evidence in criminal cases. However, they usually ignore another bit of science, which is that juveniles have underdeveloped brains. Biologically, even balanced children cannot properly weigh their actions against the possible consequences of those actions. Disturbed children have an even harder time.
Once again, the Supreme Court has wrestled with this question frequently, especially over the past twenty years. 2021’s Jones vs. Mississippi is the latest major case. In Jones, the Court seriously questioned extended juvenile sentences, especially LWOP (life without parole) sentences. However, the Supremes stopped just short of declaring these sentences unconstitutional.
Therefore, under current law, juveniles who received LWOP sentences, like Bankston, might be eligible for resentencing.
Alas, many Marietta criminal defense lawyers use the wrong approaches in such resentencing matters. Many lawyers argue that the original verdict was flawed, usually because the judge or jury didn’t consider some extenuating circumstances, and/or that the defendant has been a “model prisoner” who deserves release.
Usually, in criminal law, what’s done is done. Most appeals judges are very reluctant to question original verdicts, since the judge or jury weighed the evidence. Furthermore, the “model prisoner” argument often backfires. To many judges, good behavior is proof that the system works.
Then-and-now arguments are often much more effective. For example, Richard might have lived in a rough part of town, had no job, and kept questionable company. Now, he has a new place to live, he has a job lined up, and his rapscallion friends are gone. This same approach usually works well in other post-conviction matters, like probation and parole revocation hearings.
There’s a difference between a criminal charge and a criminal conviction. For a free consultation with an experienced Marietta family law attorney, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. Convenient payment plans are available.