VALDOSTA -- An Echols County man convicted of his mother's murder will know by next week if he will be granted a motion for a new trial.
Thomas Wright Hester, 25, asked for a new trial based on evidence his attorney said emerged following his conviction March 31, 2004. The evidence suggests other individuals were involved in the murder of Gayle Hester, 57, and the state knew about the evidence prior to the trial.
Superior Court Judge Richard M. Cowart heard testimony Wednesday from Capt. David Arnold, of Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, Georgia Mae Corbett and her husband, Ronald Leroy Corbett.
Hester is serving a life sentence at Calhoun State Prison for the murder of Gayle Hester. Along with a life sentence for murder, Hester received five years for possession of a firearm during a crime, 20 years for armed robbery, 10 years for theft of a motor vehicle and 10 years for possession of cocaine. He was 22 at the time of the murder.
Gayle Hester was found June 6, 2002, in the bedroom of her Echols County home by her husband, Walter Hester. Former Echols County Sheriff Donald Fender said she was stabbed to death June 5, 2002, and the room showed signs of a struggle, according to a past Valdosta Daily Times article.
Arnold, the first person to take the stand Wednesday, said the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office had received a lookout from Echols County concerning Thomas Hester. During that time, he had spoken with and showed a picture of Hester to Georgia Mae Corbett, of Valdosta.
Georgia Mae Corbett later contacted Arnold, telling him she had seen Hester in a "little red car" with others outside her home the night of June 6.
Hester and Sheldon Vickers were in the car driven by Melanie Toal. Shane Wilkes had also been in the car and came to Georgia Mae Corbett's home to buy crack cocaine, according to testimony. Georgia Mae Corbett has prior convictions for selling cocaine and possession of cocaine.
"He took me outside and told me that the boy that had killed his mother was in the back seat of the car," Georgia Mae Corbett's affidavit says.
Hester was arrested June 7 at the downtown branch of Park Avenue Bank, attempting to cash a check on his mother's account.
Arnold said he didn't know how much time had passed until he was again contacted by Georgia Mae Corbett, who told him Sheldon Vickers had been at her house June 8 and was bragging about how Gayle Hester was murdered.
Arnold said he couldn't remember how long he waited to relay the information to somebody working the investigation. He also couldn't remember who he spoke with about the information.
Arnold said he asked the individual, who was with the Echols County Sheriff's Office or Georgia Bureau of Investigations, if the information Georgia Mae Corbett was given fit the murder scene. Arnold said he was told that wasn't how Gayle Hester had died.
Arnold did not make a report or follow up on the information, nor was he contacted by Echols deputies or the GBI to follow up the interview. He said the reason he didn't file a report was because it wasn't his case, and it isn't the custom of Lowndes deputies to make reports on information they relay.
It wasn't until after the trial and conviction that Hester's court-appointed attorney, James Tunison, learned of the information and contacted Arnold about the possibility of others being involved in the murder.
April 1, 2004, Georgia Mae Corbett read about Hester's conviction in The Times and called Walter Hester to tell him about Vickers' account of the murder.
On the stand, Georgia Mae Corbett said Vickers had told her Hester had been with him and Wilkes June 5. During that time, the three drank and did drugs all day. Hester had told the two men his mother had a large amount of money, and she was going out of town.
Hester passed out in the woods, Georgia Mae Corbett said. It was then that "they" drove to Gayle Hester's home where she was curling her hair with rollers and a curling iron. However, she didn't know who exactly drove to the home.
"They went in," Georgia Mae Corbett said. "She cursed Sheldon and asked him why he was there."
Georgia Mae Corbett said she was told there was a scuffle and Vickers drug Gayle Hester into the bedroom. "He said he took the hot curling iron and stuck it to her," Georgia Mae Corbett said.
Tunison said the medical examiner initially thought the mark on Gayle Hester was a burn mark, but later amended it to be classified as a contusion.
Assistant District Attorney Brad Shealy said the mark is consistent with Hester's taped confession that he hit his mother with a mop handle after an argument.
"They had gotten into an argument, she went to lay down," Shealy said, adding that was the reason why her glasses were on the night stand. Shealy said she would have worn her glasses if she was doing hair, plus the rollers were in their shut container. "He took the mop handle and hit her, then went through her pocket book. The defendant has never denied he killed his mother by himself."
During that time, Gayle Hester was also strangled with the cord of a curling iron and stabbed.
Georgia Mae Corbett continued to say there was a gun on the night stand Vickers took after he stuck a knife in her throat, and "hot blood gushed out."
The gun was not recovered.
"He said, 'The old --' oh I don't want to say it -- 'B put up a fight for 45 minutes," Georgia Mae Corbett said on the stand.
However, Shealy pointed out had Gayle Hester fought back she would have had defensive wounds.
Hearing Georgia Mae Corbett's account, Hester wiped tears from his face.
"Sheldon Vickers said later that morning, Thomas picked him up in Mrs. Hester's car," according to Georgia Mae Corbett's affidavit. "Sheldon said that he and Thomas went driving around using drugs. Sheldon said, 'Hell, he thought he did it.' I asked Sheldon Vickers again where Thomas was when Mrs. Hester was killed and Sheldon said Thomas was not there and that they had dropped him off in the woods or some place else."
On the stand, Georgia Mae Corbett said she wasn't sure what Vickers had said about where Hester was dropped off because another individual had cut in on the conversation at that point.
Tunison said it was important to note the state did not rebut the fact that Arnold said he had passed information along to the investigators.
Other factors the jury didn't consider, Tunison said, is that the state did not get clothes from Wilkes or Vickers for DNA tests or the fact that a neighbor saw a maroon car parked behind Gayle Hester's house the night of the murder.
Shealy said the Corbetts' testimonies were just to "pin it" on Vickers. "You can't lose sight that this defendant admitted to the murder," Shealy said.
The prosecution also had DNA evidence from a shirt Hester was wearing that could not be excluded as Gayle Hester's.
As for the state not providing evidence to the defense, Shealy said there was nothing written to provide.
Vickers or Wilkes' whereabouts are not known. Vickers may still be serving a sentence for a robbery conviction.
To contact Brianne Sweetland, call (229) 244-3400, ext. 245.
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