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Posted: June 4, 2009 11:30 p.m.

Thornton found to be guilty on all charges

Sentenced to life plus 40 years

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Courtney Thornton

Courtney Courtmentez Thornton sat silently, his head down, as Judge Eugene Benton read the charges against him. After nearly five hours of deliberation that stretched into two days, the jury reached a verdict of guilty on each charge. Thornton shook his head slightly after each utterance of the word “guilty.” Thornton, who turns 27 today, was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.

The case came down to the prosecution’s star witness, Edwin Wynn, who spoke at length of the incident that left him battered and bloody, and Dennis Rogers barely clinging to life — a fight he would lose days later at an Atlanta hospital.

According to Wynn, after shooting 39-year-old Rogers in the head, a scuffle between him and Thornton ensued. Wynn told jurors that Thornton pressed the gun to his neck and told him to stop the car, which Wynn did, and then parked the vehicle and turned off the ignition. Thornton demanded money and Wynn said that he complied, reaching into his pocket and handing him $110, then grabbing at the gun and going into the backseat of the car, struggling with Thornton for his life.

The gun went off again and the bullet went through the passenger side window. Wynn said he then wrestled the gun away from Thornton and fired it out the open driver’s side window in an effort to scare Thornton. He then told jurors that he threw the .38 Special out of the window into the brush and then ran out of the car with Thornton in pursuit.

When asked by Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon why he had not fired the gun at Thornton, Wynn replied, “Because I am not a killer.”

Wynn said he ran, but was disoriented and ran the wrong way — heading toward a dead end — and had to double back, straight into the path of Thornton. The two then fought in the street. Thornton punched Wynn, breaking his four front teeth, which were partials, busting his lip and blackening his eye. In the scuffle, Wynn also fell, scraping an elbow and knee. Thornton chased him all the way from Gum Creek to Kirkland, yelling that he wanted his gun, and that he would go back home and get another gun and shoot him.

According to Wynn’s testimony, Thornton told him “you don’t know what he [Dennis Rogers] was gonna’ do to you” and “your prints are on the gun too — their gonna’ get you too.”

At some point Thornton stopped chasing him, but Wynn kept going, heading to the parking lot of the Kroger shopping center on Salem Road where he knew law enforcement officers often parked. He said that two cars passed him, but each time he saw lights he ducked into the shadows, scared it was Thornton. Eventually, a deputy drove past and Wynn reportedly began chasing the patrol car and did so until he reached the parking lot where the deputy had parked and was beginning to work on his evening’s reports.

Deputies were dispatched to the area where Wynn said the shooting had taken place on Gum Tree and deputies found the vehicle, with its lights still on, sitting where Wynn said it would be. Rogers was slumped in the passenger seat, barely alive.

“I’ve never been in that situation in my life,” said Wynn. “I’ve never had my life threatened or seen someone’s life taken. It wasn’t easy – it still isn’t. Everything just happened so fast. It seemed like two years, but it was only 30 to 40 seconds.”

Wynn immediately told investigators that Thornton was the one responsible, though he initially called him “Cornelius,” a fact defense attorney Teri Smith addressed, saying that since Wynn knew Thornton he shouldn’t have stumbled on his name when the time came to identify the shooter.

The defense maintained that Wynn was a liar, and indeed, several times in transcriptions of interviews between him and investigators, Wynn did lie and omit the truth – initially about why he happened to be in the area, conveniently leaving out that there was a drug deal going on at the time.

According to Smith, her client was not in the car at the time of the shooting, and evidence did not place him there. There were prints found on the gun used in the shooting and on the handle on the back door, but all came back inconclusive from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“They were not good enough for a match,” said Lt. Bill Watterson, the lead detective in the case. “We look for hoops and loops and they weren’t visible.”

Smith was also concerned with an interview done with Wynn at the Newton County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 10, 2008, when he claimed his car that had been collected as evidence right after the shooting. The tape of the interview was lost before transcripts could be taken of it and before the defense could listen to it. According to Smith there were only a small amount of notes that investigators took during the interview that could be reviewed.

A marijuana cigarette was also found inside Wynn’s Jaguar. Smith contended that this was a “real problem” since the entire night began with a search for marijuana and if Wynn – who said that he smoked no more than four blunts a week and didn’t keep it in his home at all times – had marijuana, there was no need for him to go in search of it or to have Rogers looking for it the night of the shooting.

According to Watterson, Wynn also didn’t have blood on his clothing when he was initially brought in to the NCSO on Jan. 1, and the blood from Rogers that had dripped onto the center console of the car was not smeared. Smith questioned how Thornton and Wynn could have struggled in the car and not smeared the blood flowing from Rogers’ head.

Though it took four days to find him, Smith also said that it wasn’t because he was hiding, which is what the prosecution alleged, he simply didn’t know they were looking for him.

Another point the defense attempted to make to the jury was that Thornton’s residence was vacant at the time of the shooting, meaning that he could not have been picked up there and that investigators didn’t properly investigate Wynn and his story of what he did the day of Dec. 31, choosing instead to believe that Thornton was guilty simply because Wynn said he was.

The owner of the .38 Special that was stolen out of her vehicle, along with her purse and cell phone, said that the gun went missing in 2005, but admitted she did not know who stole the weapon.

After two days of testimony, both sides rested, the fate of Thornton was placed squarely in the hands of the jurors.

“We have somebody who died and there should be justice for the person who shot Dennis Rogers. The problem is, that person is not Courtney Thornton,” Smith said. “It is all Edwin Wynn,” she continued. “He has been inconsistent throughout [the case]. If you don’t believe Edwin Wynn there is nothing else that puts Courtney Thornton in Newton County that morning, much less in that car with that gun. It [the case] doesn’t make sense because it’s not the way it happened. I don’t know exactly what happened – we can’t know. But what we do know is that the entire case comes down to Edwin Wynn and he just cannot tell the truth.”

Zon spoke next to the jury, saying that this case was not like CSI and Law and Order.

“That’s TV, not the real world,” she said. “This is the real world and we deal with the real facts. Mr. Thornton’s intent was not just to kill Mr. Rogers. I believe his intent was to kill Mr. Wynn too. Mr. Wynn fought for his life that evening and Mr. Rogers lost his life – no matter what they were out there doing, Mr. Rogers didn’t deserve to die, no matter his role in this transaction.”

Zon also told jurors that they didn’t have to know all the details of what transpired that night.

“Who’s to say Rogers didn’t have plans,” she said, addressing the fact that Wynn told the jury Thornton had implied Rogers was going to hurt him that evening. “Who’s to say Courtney Thornton didn’t pull the ultimate double cross and decide not to split the money? There’s no honor among thieves in that underworld out there,” she said.  “We don’t have to prove the case to a mathematical certainty – that would be impossible – we aren’t invited to come and videotape homicides beforehand. 

"One witness – if you choose to believe what Mr. Wynn says – is enough. At the end of the day you have to decide what to do about the death of Dennis Rogers and at the end of the day I hope you choose to believe the person who ran to the police, not the person who ran from them.”

After a deliberation that lasted three hours Wednesday evening and nearly two more Thursday morning, the jury unanimously convicted Thornton of malice murder (life), armed robbery (20 years), possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (five years), possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime (five years) and theft by receiving (10 years). Thornton is also prohibited from any contact with Wynn. He will be eligible for parole in 30 years.

“The jury had to decide whether to believe Mr. Wynn,” said Zon. “The case largely depended on his credibility and the evidence at the scene that supported his account of the shooting. Ultimately they chose to believe him. I'm sure he is relieved, along with the family of Mr. Rogers, that the jury convicted Thornton.”

Rogers’ family seemed relieved, his mother sighing as the verdict was read, though they sat stoically throughout the sentencing phase, as they had throughout the trial.

Thornton was quietly taken into custody after hearing his sentence; he held his head down, speaking only to his attorney before being led out of the courtroom. He had no family present at the time of the verdict or sentencing.

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