The Supreme Court of Georgia upheld a Hall County man’s 2003 murder conviction Monday, ruling that certain autopsy photographs and a video of the crime scene were admissible at trial.
Brandon Cross was sentenced in April 2003 to life in prison for malice murder of Debra Hymer.
The case was argued in legal briefs earlier this year, and the justices unanimously upheld the conviction in an opinion released Monday, Aug. 10.
Defense attorney Matt Cavedon and the Hall County Public Defender’s Office argued the trial court should have allowed the defense to discredit the statements of Cross’ co-conspirator and then-girlfriend Jessica Cates. The defense also said it believed the court should not have allowed the jury to see certain autopsy photographs and a crime scene video.
Cavedon did not return a request for comment Monday, Aug. 10.
Cross, who was 18 years old in January 2002, was living in Hall County with Hymer and Cates.
According to the Georgia Supreme Court’s summary of events, Hymer told Cross to move out following an argument and locked Cates and Cross out of the house on Jan. 26, 2002, according to the court.
“Cates and (Cross) then went inside and got into a fight with Hymer, and (Cross) strangled Hymer and beat her head into the floor, killing her. Cates cleaned up Hymer’s blood, burned her clothes, and helped dispose of her body on the property,” according to the court’s summary.
Cates told a friend about the incident but later said she was joking, according to the court’s summary. The friend placed an anonymous call to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, the summary says.
Investigators searched Hymer’s house Feb. 6 and found blood on the carpet. Two days later, authorities found Hymer’s body covered “with dirt, leaves, and sticks in a mineshaft opening in the woods behind her house.”
The defense argued it should have been allowed to discredit the inconsistent statements Cates made to an investigator and in her plea bargain.
Cates pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, according to the court’s summary. She was released from prison in June 2018.
According to the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion Monday, Cross and his defense never argued at trial whether Cates’ statements were admissible. If they had, this would have allowed the defense to question Cates’ credibility in front of the jury, the court said.
The defense’s appeal of the conviction to the Georgia Supreme Court also concerned a crime scene video and three “post-incision” autopsy photographs, where Hymer’s internal injuries were shown.
The medical examiner said these were helpful to explain the extent of Hymer’s injuries “because the decomposition of her body obscured injuries” that could be seen on Hymer’s outer body, according to the court’s opinion.
The court’s opinion said the previous rules on evidence allowed these types of photos when necessary to “show some material fact which becomes apparent only because of the autopsy.”
The defense argued the crime scene video was prejudicial because of the “gruesome images” of the burial site.
Under the previous rules of evidence, the court also ruled that video acceptable when it shows “alterations to the body … due to the combined forces of the murderer and the elements,” according to the opinion.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article relied on inaccurate information in the official opinion of the Supreme Court. The court had incorrect information regarding the relationship between Debra Hymer and Jessica Cates. Cates was a friend of Hymer’s son, according to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.