The possibility of a mistrial looms after three jurors were excused Thursday in the trial of a man accused of killing a 21-year-old Lumpkin County woman.
If another juror is excused in the trial of Austin Todd Stryker, Northeastern Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin would be forced to declare a mistrial since there are now no alternates left in the 12-member pool.
One juror told the court they had tested positive for COVID-19, while two others were also dismissed for their vaccination status. The trial is expected to end late next week.
News of the dismissed jurors came on the third day of Stryker's trial.
Stryker, 24, is on trial for the 2019 killing of Hannah Bender, 21. He has been charged with malice murder; felony murder; aggravated assault; aggravated battery; possessing a firearm and knife during commission of a felony; violations of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act; concealing the death of another; and tampering with evidence.
During testimony Thursday, prosecutors continued to build their case.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Associate Medical Examiner Keith Lehman said it would have been “extremely unlikely” for the single gunshot wound to Hannah Bender’s head to be accidental.
However, despite two days of expert witnesses such as the medical examiner or forensic pathologist, discussion about Bender’s death seemed to yield just as many questions as answers.
So far, the trial has primarily focused on Stryker. Co-defendant Jerry Harper has been charged with three street gang violation counts; hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and theft by receiving stolen property.
Questions about shooting
When GBI crime scene specialist Taylor Lawrence exhumed Bender’s body on Sept. 25, 2019, moderate to advanced decomposition had occurred on parts of the body’s head and back.
He explained that the bullet entered the left top of the head and traveled at a downward, rightward angle. After some questioning from one of Stryker’s defense lawyers, Kyle Denslow, Lehman posited that the gun could’ve been raised above Bender’s head, or her head could’ve been bowed when she was shot.
If the handgun was aligned with the trajectory position into the head, then as the head is moved, the weapon’s position could be predicted.
“Then, the only other way to determine it (head position) would be blood splatter,” Lehman said.
GBI crime scene specialist Britt Peacock stated Wednesday that red and darker brown spots on the truck’s ceiling could’ve been blood. Later during his testimony, he clarified that if he’d thought it was blood, he would’ve tested it. No presumptive or on-scene blood test was done, and the ceiling sections weren’t cut and taken to a lab.
During his statements Thursday, Lehman also said that a gunshot residue test would not have been helpful.
“When a gun goes off, gunshot residue goes into the air, and someone can have it on their hand just from being in the vicinity,” he said.
It would follow in such cases that the victim was in the vicinity of a gunshot because of their injury, so such a test carries no weight.
When questioned by Denslow, Lehman agreed that perhaps the jumping motion that comes from shifting gears with a manual transmission could have affected the gun’s movement.
Knife wounds, manner of death and cause of death
Of the at least 32 stab wounds on Bender’s head, neck, back, chest and arms, some of the wounds appeared to be defensive, according to Senior Assistant District Attorney Shiv Sachdeva.
Lehman agreed with Sachdeva that cuts on the back right thumb, back right finger and left forearm could have been defensive. However, the medical examiner couldn’t say for sure.
Due to suspected blood on the outside but not inside of the body around the right chest cavity or lung, Lehman said he couldn’t confidently say “if she (Bender) was alive or not alive when some or all of the wounds were sustained.”
Despite the uncertainties, the manner of death was labeled homicide, and the cause of death was deemed as being from either the gunshot wound, stabbing or a combination.
Expected future witnesses include Lawrence, a GBI DNA analyst, Robert Youngblood, a ballistics expert, and a key investigator.