As the trial began Wednesday for one of the men accused of viciously murdering Timothy Coggins in 1983, Coggins’ niece said it was a bittersweet day.
“Sweet that we’re finally here, 35 years later, but bitter that my grandparents aren’t here to see it,” Heather Coggins said.
Heather Coggins’ grandmother — Timothy’s mom — died in 2016, but even on her deathbed, Heather previously told CNN, her grandmother “knew that this day would one day come.”
Coggins watched as lawyers made opening statements in the trial of Frankie Gebhardt, 60, who is charged with felony murder, aggravated assault and concealing a death in the October 1983 slaying. Another defendant, Gebhardt’s brother-in-law, Bill Moore Sr., faces the same charges but will be tried separately. Both men are in jail without bond.
Gebhardt’s trial is expected to last about a week. Moore’s trial could begin later this summer.
Three other people — one a former corrections officer and another a part-time Milner police officer — are charged with obstruction for their efforts to derail the investigation after it was reopened in March 2017, Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix said when the five were arrested in October.
As with many cold cases, evidence has gone missing, which defense lawyers say will be key to Gebhardt’s defense. And while prosecutors acknowledge some witnesses’ memories are spotty, the defense team intends to paint them as a rogue’s gallery whose credibility is suspect.
The trial was plagued by jury problems from the start. Superior Court Judge Fletcher Sams sent deputies to find some of the almost 200 jurors — well more than half the jury pool — who didn’t show up for jury selection Monday. On Wednesday, Sams jailed a sequestered witness — a relative of Gebhardt’s — for 20 days after learning she was watching a livestream of opening statements outside the courtroom.
Gebhardt and Moore are accused of slicing and stabbing Timothy Coggins and tying him with a logging chain to the back of a truck before dragging him up and down a field off a rural road in nearby Sunny Side, a town about 30 miles south of Atlanta. Prosecutors say the men killed Coggins, who was 23, because he’d been socializing with a white woman, Gebhardt’s “old lady” at the time.
The prosecution’s case
Chief Assistant District Attorney Marie Broder admitted to the jury there will be problems with the case. In 1983, DNA fingerprinting was not yet an investigative technique and crime scene investigations weren’t what they are today.
Plus, she said, the original investigation — conducted during an era in which residents say the Ku Klux Klan held rallies and parades in Spalding County — was “horrific, shameful, incomplete” and closed too quickly, just weeks after the murder. She conceded that half of the evidence from the crime scene is now gone.
Witness testimony and physical and circumstantial evidence, however, will point to Gebhardt, who Broder said repeatedly boasted about killing Coggins — though never by Coggins’ name, only by “the n-word.”
“Sometimes these crime scenes whisper about what happened. … Sometimes the crime scene screams,” Broder said. “You will hear a crime scene scream of what happened to Timothy Coggins back in October 1983. Listen. Listen to it.”
Gebhardt wanted to send a message to the black community in Griffin, she said.
“Rage fueled this murder. Anger fueled the mutilation of Timothy Coggins’ body,” she said, adding of the defendant, “Rage against African-Americans still exists in his heart.”
The defense’s case
Defense attorney Scott Johnston seized on the emotion Broder invoked, telling jurors that prosecutors want them to decide the case on their feelings rather than facts.
“The state wants you mad. The state wants you angry. The state wants you in a hurry. They want you to rush through,” he said, adding that 35 years ago, the state didn’t care about Coggins’ death. “Just another dead black man in 1983.”
The missing evidence will be key to proving Gebhardt’s innocence, Johnston said. Included are shell casings, plaster casts of tire impressions, soil samples containing blood, Coggins’ blood-stained sweater, hair samples, a homemade club, an empty Jack Daniels bottle and a $1 bill with red stains that was recovered from a store the day after the murder, he said.
“Where’s that head hair? We don’t know. State doesn’t know,” Johnston said. “(Authorities) picked up all the evidence. They tested some of it. Now, it’s lost to us.”
Johnston also said that, despite Broder’s assertion that DNA fingerprinting didn’t exist in 1983, prosecutors today have a DNA profile, taken from blood on Coggins’ jeans. It doesn’t match Gebhardt, the attorney said.
Following opening statements, prosecutors called former GBI medical examiner Warren Tillman, who testified that Coggins suffered about 30 lacerations, incisions, abrasions and stab wounds, including three that punctured his lungs.
Another witness, Jesse Gates, testified that he dropped off Coggins the night of the murder at a black club in Griffin and found it curious there were three white men outside. En route to the club, Gates said, Coggins began discussing “this Caucasian girl.” Because of the racial climate in Griffin, Gates was concerned and told Coggins he needed to go to Atlanta if he wanted to date a white woman.
“I said, ‘Now Tim, if I told you once, I told you twice, you need to be careful about dating Caucasian women in Griffin,’ and he said, ‘Mr. Jesse, you’re just old-fashioned,'” Gates testified.
As for some of the other witnesses slated to testify for the prosecution, Johnston said one failed to report Gebhardt’s alleged involvement in the murder for years until he was imprisoned for child molestation. Johnston described other witnesses as “jailhouse informants.”
“What was done to that man was terrible, but what you’re here to decide today is not if it’s terrible. It’s who did it,” Johnston said.
The murder weapon
The defense also sought to cast doubt on another likely pillar of the prosecution’s case: the murder weapon.
At a probable cause hearing in November, Jared Coleman, a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said a witness claimed Gebhardt told him he threw the knife used to kill Coggins in a well on his property. Investigators had not excavated the well because it would compromise the integrity of Gebhardt’s home, Coleman said at the hearing.
Gebhardt’s family members took two CNN reporters to the well after the hearing. It sat directly behind Gebhardt’s one-story home with sky-blue siding. The well was housed in a shed between a woodpile and an empty hot tub. A small donkey stood in a pen nearby. The shed’s doors were bound with a small chain.
Johnston said investigators have dug up the well since Coleman testified in November, and they found a knife, which he expects to presented as evidence, he said.
He described it as a “tiny piece of Japanese steak knife,” but he said Gebhardt had been filling the well with trash, “20 years worth.”