Motion filed to overturn life sentence

CONYERS -- A request for a new trial has been filed for the Conyers man convicted of armed robbery and recently sentenced to life in prison.

Nathan Christopher Dwight, 22, of Conyers was sentenced to life plus five years after a jury found him guilty of armed robbery, three counts of aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

The crime happened in August of 2009 when a black man robbed at gunpoint an Hispanic food store in the Salem Gate Shopping Center wearing a disguise of dark sunglasses and a Jamaican-styled knit hat with fake dreadlocks. Rockdale County Chief Superior Court Judge Sidney Nation imposed the sentence after the four-day trial which included video surveillance and testimony from victims identifying Dwight as the gunman.

Local resident Michael Minkoff, whose wife testified for the defense during the trial, has launched a Web site that maintains Dwight's innocence and advocates for Dwight's release. Minkoff also challenged the jury selection process, citing inequities in the racial make-up of the jury pool.

Minkoff does not think the jury was truly reflective of the community, pointing to the situation of "a young black man with 12 white jurors."

"According to the jury, it's a white county. How did they get this jury pool? To me, it was not a jury of his peers," Minkoff, who is white, said. "It was like, from Day 1, this kid was railroaded."

Rockdale County Public Defender Daniel Partain, Dwight's attorney during the trial, said he did not want to go into whether the appeal will challenge the jury pool, citing pending litigation. However, Partain did explain the selection process and said the jury pool in Dwight's trial was not all-white.

"It didn't start out as an all-white jury. There were a few minorities, but they were not black," Partain said of the jury that rendered the guilty verdict.

A Hispanic woman sat on that jury, Partain said. A black woman started out as one of the 12 on the jury during the first day of Dwight's trial. But the woman became ill and was allowed to be excused after the judge, the state prosecutor and the defense met with the woman.

"He (Dwight) said if she couldn't pay attention, he didn't want her on there," Partain said.

When it comes to jury selection, Partain explained the defense and the state prosecution get the same amount of opportunities to strike, or exempt, a juror from service. Strikes can be made without a giving a reason from either side, but can not be because of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. A juror can also be excused if the defense or prosecution demonstrates the prospective juror could not be fair and impartial.

"It's based, a lot of times, on their answers and the case you've got ... you're looking for certain things," Partain said. "You want to find out information about them, what their biases are, what their prejudices are."

When asked about the lack of blacks on the Dwight's jury, Partain limited his comments but said, "you just can't go on race alone."

Partain said one purpose of the motion for new trial was to undo the life sentence.

"This is basically a very bare bones motion," Partain said. "Right now, what we're doing is asking for the verdict to be overturned and he gets to go back where he was before this trial started."

The motion will be heard before Judge Nation and if he grants it, there will be a new trial, Partain said.