After three and a half years of delays, Hannah Payne’s murder trial has been put off again—and Payne needs to find a new attorney.
Payne is charged with one count of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment, and three counts of possessing a weapon during a crime in the 2019 shooting death of Kenneth Herring.
Emergency responders and relatives say they believe Herring was suffering from a diabetic emergency when he hit a semi truck, appeared disoriented, and left the scene. Payne followed, reportedly to get Herring’s license plate number, later cutting off Payne’s truck at a busy intersection, ordering him out of the car, and getting into a struggle when she pulled a pistol on him.
At 9 a.m., a meeting between defense attorney Matt Tucker and Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Smith was supposed to have taken place, followed by jury selection and possibly opening arguments Monday.
But Tucker was a no-show. Smith told Superior Court Judge Shana Rooks Malone that, after a few minutes, she had stepped out into the hall to look for Tucker. There, she found Payne, and asked her, “Do you know where your attorney is?”
Payne replied that Tucker had told her he’d had a stroke on Saturday and was in Piedmont Fayette Hospital.
Malone called Payne up to the defense table, without her attorney, for the second time in less than a week. Payne repeated what she had told Smith in the hallway.
Malone said Tucker had not notified his own office, the Clayton County District Attorney’s office, or the court of his mishap. Addressing Payne, Malone said, “You’ve been here. He’s not here.”
Last Tuesday, Tucker also had been 30 minutes late for a 3 p.m. motion hearing. Payne and her parents were present in chambers in the audience. Malone called Payne to the podium, asked if she had Tucker’s number, and told her to step outside and call to find out where he was.
When Tucker arrived, he told Malone that he had not filed a conflict notice because he had an 8 a.m. case in Fayette County that he had thought would be over well before he was due in Clayton County. Malone did not hold him in contempt at that time.
Today, Malone again asked Payne to track down her attorney.
“Do you have his cell number?” Malone asked Payne. She did. “Could you write it on a piece of paper and hand it to my judicial assistant?”
Payne obliged. Malone took the slip of paper, said, “I’m going to make some calls,” and left chambers at 9:25 a.m.
The Clayton Crescent stepped out, called Piedmont Fayette and confirmed that Tucker had been admitted to a room. A nurse said she was not allowed to reveal Tucker’s condition, but that he was “awake and all there.”
At 9:33 a.m., District Attorney Tasha Mosley speedwalked from her office to the courtroom. Once in chambers, she and her team huddled up for several minutes, then went back to their table. At one point, Mosley leaned on the table and shook her head.
At 10 a.m., Malone returned to the bench and reiterated the events leading up to Payne’s and Smith’s conversation.
“There is no indication he even had a stroke,” Malone said.
Turning to Payne, Malone said, “You need new counsel. I find [Tucker] in contempt of court. I am filing a grievance with the State Bar of Georgia. This is not the first time….He is doing you a disservice. You have the right to have counsel.”
Malone continued, “This is a 2019 case. I want it tried. I don’t want it to go to 2023.”
Adding that the judges have about 34 murder cases to try, she added, “It will not be in December because I have another specially set murder trial….Certainly, Ms. Payne should make sure that she has counsel who’s going to be here.”
Malone said, “I am not making disparagements on Mr. Tucker.” However, she noted the “heightened interest in this case, and there are media who have to take their equipment down.” With that, Malone said everyone there for the Payne case was free to go.
Payne and her family quickly left the courthouse without saying anything. She was accompanied by someone who appeared to be an advocate of some sort.
Members of the NAACP Clayton County Branch sat in the overflow room, where members of the media had been relegated for the duration of jury selection.
Outside the courthouse, President C. Synamon Baldwin said, “We’ll be back. The NAACP is not leaving and we will be here. And we’re going to bring more [people] with us.” She added that she would release a formal statement later today.
We will update with any new information. A new court date was not set, given Payne’s lack of counsel.