A Hall County judge didn’t want to sentence Benjamin Horne to life in prison in a domestic violence case, but he had no choice.
Now Horne’s family members and attorneys hope a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision will bolster the appeal of his 2007 conviction for kidnapping with bodily injury, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
"Life in prison should be for something that’s really, really severe, not for having a fight with your girlfriend," Horne’s father, Don Horne, said this week. "It’s just absolutely insane that it went this far."
An attorney who filed Horne’s appeal with the Georgia Court of Appeals late last month says Horne’s case is a perfect example of the need to re-evaluate the legal standards for crimes in Georgia that carry stiff mandatory minimum sentences with no discretion for sentencing judges.
"I’d like to see the legislature clear up the definitions of some of these crimes to fit the sentencing," said Andrew Maddox, an attorney with the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s Office who is handling Horne’s appeal.
Maddox noted that in many cases of mandatory-minimum sentences imposed by the legislature, "we changed the sentencing without changing what it takes to get the sentence."
Horne was convicted by a jury of moving his live-in girlfriend against her will while she received cuts to her mouth and bruises on her legs inside their home.
He was acquitted by a jury of charges that he assaulted her with a knife and committed aggravated sexual battery. The jury was not told of the sentencing ranges that each charge carried.
During Horne’s sentencing, Hall County Chief Superior Court Judge C. Andrew Fuller expressed misgivings about the sentence he was required by law to impose.
Fuller, according to Horne’s appeal, called the life sentence "not very fair and not very just" and said the case would not have warranted such a sentence if he had been given some discretion. The judge said a sentence of 20 years, with 12 years to serve in prison, would have been more appropriate, according to Horne’s appeal.
Fuller also said that he found "life in prison not to be a sentence that was appropriate for his case," according to Horne’s appeal.
Technically, Horne will be eligible to be considered for parole after serving 14 years of his life sentence. Had the crime occurred after July 2006, parole eligibility would have come after 30 years.
For Horne’s father, when his son is up for parole doesn’t matter.
"In 14 years, who cares?" Don Horne said. Horne said his son is slightly built and suffers from Type 1 diabetes, making prison life for him even tougher.
"He’s not doing well in the prison population," Horne said. "He will not survive in there for 14 years."
Prior to his arrest, Ben Horne worked as a carpenter and handyman in Gainesville and had a 2-year-old daughter with his girlfriend, Andrea Golden. Horne was accused by Golden of dragging her by the hair from a bedroom to a kitchen during an argument, punching, kicking and choking her, and barricading her inside a closet.
Horne was out on bond for nearly two years awaiting trial. He was granted joint custody of the couple’s daughter while the case was pending.
According to Don Horne, prosecutors offered his son a plea deal in which he would have served about three years in prison. Ben Horne refused.
"Ben’s idea was that surely the jury would see what was going on, that it was just a fight," his father said.
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh declined to comment on Horne’s case, citing the pending appeal. His office has not yet filed a response to the appeal.
Efforts to reach Golden were not successful.
Horne’s appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals asks the panel to consider whether a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision redefining the crime of kidnapping should apply in his case.
The high court late last year ruled that prosecutors must show more than "the slightest of movements" to prove a kidnapping charge. In the past, moving a person just a few feet against his or her will could constitute kidnapping under Georgia law.
Four of the seven justices found that kidnapping should be a movement of significant duration that increases the dangers of being the victim of a separate crime, such as aggravated assault. The majority also said that Georgia’s legal standard for kidnapping blurs the distinction between kidnapping and false imprisonment. Horne was convicted of both.
Maddox is hopeful that the new standard can be applied retroactively to his client’s case, should the court of appeals overturn the conviction and grant a new trial.
"As long as the case is in the current appellate stream, I think it should be applied," Maddox said. "This case has not been fully adjudicated in terms of appeals."
Maddox also believes the legal standard for the charge of kidnapping with bodily injury should be reviewed. Under the current law "bodily injury" can be virtually any injury. In Horne’s victim’s case, it was cuts to the mouth and bruises to the legs.
"It seems that when it’s a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, that it should be a serious injury involved," Maddox said.
Maddox believes the Georgia Supreme Court’s recent ruling on kidnapping helps his client’s chances of having the conviction overturned.
"The courts are looking at these cases very seriously, and I think we have a better than usual chance to be successful in this appeal," Maddox said.
Don Horne gets regular letters from his son, who is now in Washington State Prison in Davisboro.
"He’s hopeful," Don Horne said. "Ben is an optimistic person. He was floored by this, but he still believes the system will work. I don’t know what’s going to happen if it doesn’t."