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State to seek death penalty in 2020 murder in Newton County
Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Judicial Center
The Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Judicial Center - photo by Courtesy of Newton County

COVINGTON, Ga. — The state will seek to put to death a man accused in the murders of women in Newton and Gwinnett counties on the same day in March 2020.

Superior Court Judge Ken Wynne on Wednesday, March 3, continued until March 31 an arraignment for Arrief McKenzie, 50, of Covington, after hearing he only had one of two required attorneys in the case, said District Attorney Randy McGinley.

McKenzie is facing charges of malice murder, felony murder, burglary, home invasion and other charges in Newton County related to the March 3 death of his estranged wife, Niki McKenzie, at a residence on Keyton Drive in Covington.

Deputies reportedly found 51-year-old Niki McKenzie dead in the garage of the Keyton Drive home on March 3, 2020.

Gwinnett County officers also arrested McKenzie on a murder charge after police found 36-year-old Jillian Myles-Walters dead earlier on March 3 at her home in unincorporated Lawrenceville. 

Myles-Walters and the suspect reportedly had been in a prior relationship.

McGinley filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against McKenzie in early December.

According to state law, the procedure for imposition of the death penalty states, "The judge shall consider, or he shall include in his instructions to the jury for it to consider, any mitigating circumstances or aggravating circumstances otherwise authorized by law" and any of 12 "statutory aggravating circumstances which may be supported by the evidence."

The notice charges that McKenzie committed murder under two of the listed circumstances, including "which was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim" and "while the Defendant was engaged in the commission of burglary."

McGinley appeared before Wynne Wednesday for a status conference regarding McKenzie’s legal representation. 

If the state seeks the death penalty it must follow rules stated in the Georgia Supreme Court’s Uniform Appeal Procedure (UAP), McGinley said.

The UAP mandates that a defendant in a death penalty case have two attorneys appointed, including a lead counsel and a co-counsel who each have specific experience and education, he said. 

McKenzie, however, only had one attorney present during the Wednesday conference. 

The attorney, Jerrilyn Bell of the Georgia Capital Defenders Office, told Wynne that her office should complete the hiring of an additional attorney who will serve as McKenzie’s second attorney.

McGinley said he anticipated McKenzie will be arraigned on the charges March 31, and the Superior Court then likely will hold what the UAP calls the “first proceeding.” 

The first proceeding must include a review of the defense attorneys’ qualifications and a long checklist of potential legal issues that can be raised, McGinley said. 

He said the UAP seeks to ensure that all legal issues that should be raised on behalf of the defendant have been considered by the defendant and defense counsel and asserted in a timely and correct manner.

It also seeks to minimize the possibility of errors and correct as promptly as possible any error that nonetheless may occur, he said.

The UAP also seeks to make certain that the record and transcripts of the proceedings are complete for unified review by the sentencing court and the Supreme Court, he said.

McGinley said he could not comment on why the death penalty was sought or specifics about the case or the evidence because it was a pending matter.

Arrief McKenzie
Arrief McKenzie (Photo courtesy of Gwinnett County Police Department)