After three and a half years, jury selection gets underway today (Monday, Nov. 14) in the malice murder trial of Hannah Payne, the woman charged with fatally shooting motorist Kenneth Herring, 62, of Riverdale in a May 7, 2019 traffic incident. First responders have said Herring may have been trying to drive himself to the hospital during a possible diabetic emergency.
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.
Payne, who is white, is charged with chasing down and shooting Herring, a Black man who first responders said may have been in the middle of a diabetic emergency when he sideswiped an 18-wheeler at Riverdale Road (Georgia Hwy, 85) and Georgia Hwy. 138, then left the scene. Police say that, according to witnesses on the scene, Herring seemed disoriented.
Payne, who witnessed the accident, alleges a Department of Corrections officer told her to follow Herring and get his tag number. When a 911 operator told Payne not to follow Herring’s truck, prosecutors say, she ignored that instruction, then used her Jeep to cut off Payne’s pickup truck at the corner of Forest Parkway and Riverdale Road.
According to court documents and testimony, Payne got out, repeatedly ordered Herring to “get out of the f___ing car,” and hit him several times, then pulled a pistol on him. The defense claims Herring had a knife on his front passenger seat and allegedly told Payne, “I got something for you, bitch.” Payne and Herring struggled over the gun, and Herring was fatally shot in the abdomen. He died about 25 minutes later at Southern Regional Medical Center. A witness told WSB-TV that Payne had changed out of a “bad girl vest” into a “pink little sweater” immediately after the shooting.
Payne was granted $100,000 bond and released with an ankle monitor and a curfew pending trial. She was later indicted on the current charges, for which she received another $200,000 bond.
Several of Herring’s family members had written letters to the court, urging that Payne not receive bond.
The case has dragged on through a series of pretrial motions and, along with other cases, was delayed by the COVID-19 judicial shutdown and backlog. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner who did Herring’s autopsy, Dr. Stacey Desamours, also was out on medical leave for several weeks, forcing another delay.
During this time, former District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson resigned; the lead prosecutor in the case, John Fowler, took a job with the state Attorney General’s office; and the detective in the case, Keon Heyward, was let go from Clayton County Police due to a positive drug test.
Heyward’s dismissal prompted a pretrial motion last Tuesday over whether Heyward’s alleged drug use cast doubt on his truthfulness in the Payne case. Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Smith pointed to case law that separates drug use from testimony about unrelated cases. Defense attorney Matt Tucker, who was late due to an unforeseen delay in Fayette County Court, asked for time to review the case law. Superior Court Judge Shana Rooks Malone said she would rule on the matter and that she expected opening arguments would begin sometime today.
At the time, the incident drew widespread outcry on social media, with some calling Payne “the female George Zimmerman,” referring to the self-appointed neighborhood watchman who shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
The NAACP Clayton County Branch has been critical of how long the case has taken to come to trial and plans to be present throughout the proceedings. President C. Synamon Baldwin has said that, if Payne were Black, she would not have gotten bond twice on her charges. Critics have said Payne acted as a self-appointed vigilante and that she had no business policing a Black man’s movements.
The defense has portrayed Payne as an all-American girl who was trying to do the right thing and who “learned a valuable lesson” about whether or not to get out of her car. Prosecutors in the case have portrayed Payne as someone who has no remorse and who “genuinely thinks she did nothing wrong.”
On Tuesday, The Clayton Crescent spoke briefly with Payne and her father outside the Harold R. Banke Justice Center. Rick Payne said they would like to tell their side of the story but wanted to consult with Payne’s attorney first. Payne’s parents and friends have denied any racist motivation behind her actions.
Herring is buried in Colquitt County. His grave remained unmarked more than two years after his death.
The Clayton Crescent’s Robin Kemp has been following the case since Herring was shot. See a timeline of the case.