COVINGTON -- After more than a week devoted to jury selection, the murder trial for Cobey Wade Lakemper got under way Wednesday in the courtroom of Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn.
District Attorney Layla Zon is asking for the death penalty on a seven-count indictment for the murder of Wendy Cartledge Carter in August of 2005. Joseph Vigneri of the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender is representing the 34-year-old defendant.
The judge opened the afternoon proceedings by explaining to the jury that Lakemper had the right to wear civilian clothes during his trial but made the choice not to do so, opting instead to wear the orange jail fatigues issued by the Newton County Detention Center. He cautioned them not to infer guilt or innocence from Lakemper's attire.
The jury next heard opening arguments from the prosecution, during which Zon outlined facts the state expected to prove in connection with the events leading to Lakemper's arrest, which she referred to as "the path of destruction Cobey Wade Lakemper left behind in July and August 2005."
Zon said Lakemper's crimes began in Missouri and did not stop until his capture in Tennessee, which included burglaries, robberies and lost lives.
He led law enforcement officers on a manhunt through several states, "And while this was going on, he was taunting law enforcement," she said, adding that when he was captured he showed no remorse or regret.
Zon said the trial would focus on the crimes Lakemper committed in Newton County, but the jury could expect to hear evidence of crimes he committed elsewhere, including a burglary in Missouri that netted him a 9mm handgun used to murder Carter, as well as two North Carolina elderly victims 11 days earlier.
She told the jury that on Aug. 17, 2005, about 10:45 a.m. Lakemper checked into the Comfort Inn on Ga. Highway 142 and paid for a room for one night. He was assigned room 114.
About 6:30 or 7 p.m., he came into the lobby of the hotel where he began to chat with a hotel clerk, who Zon said would testify that Lakemper's overtures to her made her "uncomfortable." Similarly, a woman who was a guest in the hotel at the time would also testify that Lakemper's approach to her was "uncomfortable."
About 2:30 a.m. that morning, Zon said evidence showed Lakemper came back into the lobby where Carter was then on duty and asked if he could use the computer that was provided to guests.
"She obliged, even through the doors (to the lobby) were normally locked," Zon said.
Carter went outside the hotel to smoke a cigarette and Lakemper joined her, asking for a cigarette. She gave him one and when she turned around to go back into the lobby, he struck her in the head with a "very hard object, which she described as feeling like a sledgehammer," Zon said.
She ran toward the lobby to lock the doors, but Lakemper pointed the 9mm handgun through a glass window used to converse with guests and demanded money from the register. Though pleading with him not to shoot her and telling him she was the mother of three children, he shot her "in the right abdomen area," Zon said, adding that the bullet traveled through her body and lodged into her left hip area, cutting through her intestines and colon.
Carter did not lose consciousness and was able to call 911 and called her mother on another phone.
"She identified her murderer as Cobey Wade Lakemper," Zon told the jury.
When Newton County Sheriff's Office deputies went to room 114, they found a note on the bed which read, "Heard you were coming. I already left. Cobey."
Seventy-nine days later, Carter died in an Atlanta hospital where she had been taken for treatment of her wounds.
Less than a week later, Lakemper was captured in Tennessee, driving a stolen vehicle which contained the stolen 9mm gun.
During defense opening arguments, Vigneri admitted Zon's account of events pointed to the guilt of his client, but he argued that there was no malice or premeditation behind Lakemper's actions. While saying that the death of the victim was certainly a tragedy, he asserted that the defense would prove that she died as the result of a previous medical condition and that it was not his client's intention to kill her.
He told the jury they would hear evidence of events in Lakemper's life that contributed to his conduct, including the loss of his wife and son through divorce; the break-up of a relationship weeks before the murders; attempted suicides, mental illness, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. He said these factors culminated into a "perfect storm" that led to LaKemper's crimes.
As testimony got under way, a recording of Carter's 911 call, as well as the call to her mother, was played, causing family members of the victim who were present to break down as they heard Carter beg for help. Carter was 41 and was shot on her birthday.