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Pingpong balls pick which judge works capital murder case
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For a brief time Wednesday, a hearing in Hall County Superior Court took on the appearance of a serious bingo game.

With Chief Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller presiding, the circuit’s three other judges sat in the gallery and waited to see who would draw the assignment of presiding over what is likely to be a time-consuming death penalty case. They did so through a procedure that may be unique to all courts in Georgia.

Hall County Clerk of Court Dwight Wood turned the crank of a wire-frame tumbler containing 24 numbered pingpong balls backward four times, then forward once. A ball fell into a cup and rolled down a metal chute. The number on the ball — four — meant the circuit’s newest superior court judge, Jason Deal, could preside over his first death penalty case.

At the defense table, 19-year-old Allan Robert Dickie looked on, seated next to two attorneys from the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender, the state-funded agency that represents indigent defendants who face the death penalty.

Prosecutors are seeking the execution of Dickie in connection with the August sexual assault and stabbing death of 37-year-old Claudia Toppin.

In court in an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs and leg shackles, Dickie had a four-letter profanity followed by the word "IT" scrawled on his forehead in permanent ink, a jailhouse tattoo added since his arrest.

He said nothing during the brief hearing, but turned around and squinted into the gallery as he looked at the judge who will preside over his case.

Wednesday was just the second time the superior courts of Hall and Dawson counties have used the random drawing method to assign a case. The first was in June of last year, when Judge Kathlene Gosselin’s number came up for the Cornelio Zamites death penalty case.

Zamites, accused of sexually assaulting and strangling to death a 4-year-old girl, is tentatively scheduled to go on trial in the middle of next year.

The Northeastern Judicial Circuit’s judges decided on the pingpong ball drawing in February 2006 as a way of fairly distributing capital cases that are typically drawn out and labor-intensive. Ordinarily, Gosselin, Deal, Fuller and Judge Bonnie Oliver are assigned cases alphabetically according to a defendant’s last name.

Steve Ferrell, district court administrator for the Ninth Judicial District, which includes Hall, Dawson and 13 other counties, said he was unaware of other courts in Georgia using a random drawing to assign death penalty cases.

"The northeastern circuit’s method is probably the most unique," he said. "With everyone else, they just rotate them as they come up. Usually they just go down the list and say ‘it’s your turn,’ unless there are some special circumstances."

Prior to last year, death penalty cases in Hall and Dawson County were assigned to judges based on the defendant’s last name, Wood said. Whatever judge got a murder case initially would stay with it after the state filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

But judges don’t want more than one pending capital case at a time.

University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson said death penalty cases generally take more time, involve more pretrial motions and draw more publicity than any other criminal proceeding.

For a judge, "it intensifies the workload measurably to draw a capital case," Carlson said.

Said Cobb County defense attorney Vic Reynolds, who had no involvement in Wednesday’s hearing, "It’s just one of those types of cases that consumes so much time. In most criminal cases, you’re rarely going to have a trial that will exceed a week. All of a sudden you have one that takes two to three weeks to pick a jury. Then a minimum of two weeks to try the case. That doesn’t count the sheer amount of time to hear pretrial motions."

Reynolds, whose law partner Jim Berry has tried more than 50 death penalty cases in Georgia, said when they represent clients in such cases, "we’re going to file a minimum of 130 to 150 motions, and there’s going to be a court order on each one. The pretrial motions alone just eat up a judge’s time."

Had Gosselin’s number — 2 — come up again Wednesday, she could have declined to take on another capital case, citing the workload. In that scenario, the drawing would have continued until one of the other three judges got the assignment, Wood said later.

After the hearing, Wood removed the numbered balls and packed up the steel tumbler in a cardboard box, marking down when the box was sealed. It will be stored in a vault until the next time a new death penalty case comes up.

"I’m sure we’ll need it again," Wood said.