Years Served: 25
Charges: Malice Murder, Possession of a Firearm During Commission of a Crime
Date Convicted: November 19, 1992
Sentence: Life plus 5 years
Factors Contributing to Wrongful Conviction: False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury, False Identification, Official Misconduct
Date Freed: December 20, 2017 with charges dismissed July 12, 2018
Kenneth Gardiner and his Army buddies Mark Jones and Dominic Lucci knew their lives were about to change when they drove to Savannah, Georgia on the evening of January 31, 1992, but not in the way that they did. The three friends, soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart Army Base near Savannah had set out to celebrate one last night together as bachelors. The next day, Mark Jones would be married. They never could have imagined that they would spend the next 26 years wrongfully incarcerated for the drive by murder of Stanley Jackson.
Savannah, Georgia was a hot bed of racial unrest when someone killed Stanley Jackson as he stood on a street corner in the high crime neighborhood known as Hazard County. The popularity of crack cocaine had fed an epidemic of violent crime that nearly tripled Savannah’s homicide rate from 21 in 1989 to 59 in 1992. The African American population of the city suffered disproportionately from the violence and too little was being done to stop it.
Stanley Jackson was murdered on a street corner near the home of Reverend James White and his family. Rev. White had just returned home from an evening church service when he witnessed the crime from his front porch, frightened, in the dark of night at a distance of 72 feet. He was the only eyewitness to the horrific crime. He first reported that he could only see that the shooters were creole or white, driving a black sports car. But a chance encounter with the three soldiers later that night and pressure from police, prosecutors and community leaders led Rev. White to falsely identify Kenneth Gardiner, Mark Jones, and Dominic Lucci as the shooters. They were convicted despite a solid, corroborated alibi, no physical evidence to implicate them and no relationship between them and the victim. When White later recanted his false identification, he admitted he had lied under pressure “to do the right thing” by helping convict the soldiers, and out of fear for his family if he did not.
With Centurion’s help, all three soldiers were freed on December 20, 2017, fully exonerated on July 12, 2018 and are now getting the support they need to rebuild their lives.
The full story.
Around 10 pm on January 31, 1992 Stanley Jackson (an African American man) was killed in a drive by shooting in the crime plagued neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia known as Hazard County. Reverend James White, a bus driver and lay Minister at the Living Waters Baptist Church witnessed the shooting from the front door of his residence where a friend had dropped him off after an evening church service. When he realized that he had the backdoor key, he thought about walking around to the back but knocked instead, hoping his wife would let him in. Right after he knocked, he heard what he thought were firecrackers – then he saw fire from gun shots hitting the street. When the shooters’ black sports car pulled into view, he “saw two gentlemen hanging out of the window shooting back.” After the car sped away, he ran to the victim and found him deceased. He ran back to his house, his wife let him in and called 911. He was too distraught to make the call himself.
At 10:07 pm police dispatched officers to the scene and by 10:10 pm three officers had arrived. The first on the scene responded after hearing gunfire from south of his location then the dispatch report of a violent crime a few blocks away. The next arrived about a minute later. Officer Deborah Evans arrived just after that. She was the first officer to speak with Reverend White about what he had seen. According to her report, Rev. White said that the only description he could give was “the person(s) involved were either creole or white wearing black hats.”
Following the rehearsal for Mark Jones’ and Dawn Burgett’s wedding, the wedding party had dinner together at the Golden Corral restaurant in Hinesville, Georgia. After dinner Mark and two friends, Kenneth Gardiner and Dominic Lucci, all soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart Army base drove to Savannah for a last night together as bachelors. Lucci was driving Gardiner’s car, a 1992 black Chevy Cavalier with silver stripes and TX plates; Lucci was driving because he had been to Savannah twice before and Gardiner had never been. They had planned to visit some clubs but were not admitted to Tops Lounge (their first stop) because Mark was not yet twenty-one. Other customers at that club suggested the soldiers try Club Asia and provided directions. On the way, they came upon the police roadblock set up for the investigation of Stanley Jackson’s murder and had to find a new route. Since none of the soldiers knew Savannah particularly well, they asked a police officer at the roadblock for new directions. The officer did not know where Club Asia was but directed them to continue toward downtown.
They asked for directions from two more police officers before finding their way to Club Asia. When they asked for directions at a police station, they encountered officer Evans as she arrived with Reverend White, the only known eyewitness to the drive by murder of Stanley Jackson. Officer Evans directed them to the club and as the soldiers drove off, Rev. White told her that their car “looked like” the shooters’.
On that remark, Officer Evans left Rev. White inside the station to wait for a detective while she pursued the soldiers as potential suspects. She called for back-up from her car at 10:34 pm then drove the short distance to Club Asia. Officer Evans and the back-up officers located the soldiers’ car in the parking lot, entered Club Asia, found the soldiers and asked them to step outside. Outside, police explained why they wanted to talk with them, and Kenneth Gardiner gave police consent to search his car. No weapons, bullets or bullet casings were found. The car showed no indication whatsoever that it had been involved in a drive by shooting. Less than an hour had passed since the murder.
Detective Quarterman, back at the station after responding to the crime scene, began taking Rev. White’s statement shortly after Officer Evans dropped him off. When he learned that Officer Evans had located the soldiers’ car at Club Asia, he stopped the interview to bring Rev. White to the Club and identify the soldiers, now suspects, in what is called a “show-up.” Rev. White’s response to the show-up prompted Det. Quarterman to ask the three soldiers to come to his office and they agreed.
Detectives at the station questioned Kenneth Gardiner, Dominic Lucci and Mark Jones separately for several hours. Kenneth Gardiner and Mark Jones gave identical accounts of their movements that night, from the wedding rehearsal dinner through their arrival at Club Asia and all stops in between, providing a timeline that should have excluded them as suspects. Dominic Lucci only stated that they did not shoot anyone and that they were only on East Broad Street, where Stanley Jackson was murdered, because they got lost. According to the police report, Lucci became upset and refused to answer more questions. Police asked and all three consented to having their hands swabbed that night for gunshot residue.
Though they found no weapons, no shell casings or any evidence at all that the car had been involved in the shooting when they searched it, police arrested all three that night. They confiscated their clothing and towed the vehicle to be held in relation to the investigation. On February 7, police obtained a warrant to search the car again and vacuumed it for gunshot residue on February 8. None was found.
The soldiers’ alibi…
Disinterested witnesses placed Mark Jones, Kenneth Gardiner and Dominic Lucci at the wedding rehearsal dinner too late to have committed the murder before their visit to Tops Lounge, and at Tops Lounge too late for them to have done it after. Waitresses as well as members of the wedding party consistently recalled that the three soldiers remained at the Golden Corral restaurant in Hinesville, talking in the parking lot until 9:30 pm. Officer Reynolds, of the Savannah Police Department gave testimony that he heard shots from the crime scene just before the 10:07 police dispatch. That would have given the soldiers only 35 minutes to drive from the restaurant to the crime scene, a distance of more than 50 miles, and kill Stanley Jackson, before visiting Tops Lounge.
The doorman at Tops Lounge, Haakon Kerr remembered the soldiers well, but could not remember precisely what time they arrived at the club. He estimated that it was sometime between 9:45 and 10:30. They had tried to convince him to admit them though the groom, Mark Jones, was not yet 21. He remembered that Ken Gardiner entered the lounge to use the restroom and that the soldiers had spoken to others there about clubs they might be able to get into. Kerr led investigators to one of those individuals, a cab driver named Ken Hulett. Using the times of his cab runs that night, Hulett reliably placed the soldiers at the club at 10:15 pm. There is no possibility that they could have murdered Stanley Jackson either before or after their stop at Tops Lounge, and certainly could not have disposed of guns and shell casings by the time police searched the car at Club Asia.
At the trial, the prosecution did not present any evidence that Rev. White had identified Kenneth Gardiner and Mark Jones as the shooters when Det. Middleton and Quarterman brought him to the show-up at Club Asia. But he did identify them at the pretrial hearing (just days after a vigil organized to honor the victim), and again at trial. He did so with much more detail than in the reports Officer Evans and detectives made of their conversations with him right after the crime. Minutes after the shooting he could only describe the shooters as white or creole wearing black hats and driving a black sports car. In trial testimony, he indicated that Gardiner was in the front seat and Jones in the back. He described a hat worn by Jones as well as Gardiner’s height, build, and hair color. During direct examination Rev. White said he “picked out the car I had seen over on 33rd street and the car I had seen the police officer lady was talking to.” The car he picked out was a 1992 Chevy Cavalier, but he had described the car as looking very different, like a “1978 or 1979 Camaro.”
The defense cross examined Rev. White about his statement to Officer Evans in which he stated that he could only see that the perpetrators were white or creole, wearing black hats. He responded that he had only said the one in the back wore a hat. Defense also tried to discredit Rev. White’s identification by pointing out that he could not recall details of how the victim was dressed, did not know how many shots were fired and did not notice the distinctive Texas license plate. The defense was not allowed to challenge Rev. White’s testimony with an expert on eyewitness identification.
With no relationship between the soldiers and the victim, and no motive, the prosecution presented a theory that the defendants were racists and committed the murder while acting out a Dungeons and Dragons fantasy. The prosecution devoted nearly half of the 13 page opening statement, 6 pages of the initial closing argument and 7 pages of the final closing argument to their theory. They also called several witnesses in an effort to support this theory, and further, tried to demonstrate that the soldiers were racist.
The prosecution argued that the soldiers were at Tops Lounge between 9:45 and 10:30 though witnesses for the defense placed them there at 10:15 pm, as detailed above. The prosecution claimed in their closing argument that “They really don’t have an alibi…they haven’t eliminated the likelihood that they were—I mean, they had time to get there” when in fact, it was not possible.
The jury found Kenneth Eric Gardiner, Mark Jones and Dominic Lucci guilty and sentenced them to life in prison plus five years.
Centurion began reinvestigating the murder of Stanley Jackson on behalf of Kenneth Gardiner, Mark Jones and Dominic Lucci in 2009. In 2010, Centurion founder and lead investigator Jim McCloskey interviewed Rev. White who explained for the first time what really happened in the prosecution of the three soldiers. Police and prosecutors had urged him not to agree to being interviewed by the defense prior to the trial and he had complied. Rev. White had been unable to identify anyone as the shooters when asked by police and prosecutors to do so. He had not seen them well enough. The state never disclosed his inability to identify the shooters. He explained that police and prosecutors had pressured him to make a false identification in the sworn affidavit he gave to Mr. McCloskey. McCloskey also interviewed his wife Suzette who revealed for the first time that she was present when police and prosecutors pressured and threatened her husband.
Rev. White swore in his affidavit that detectives had in fact asked him at the Club Asia show up if he could identify the shooters and he responded that he could not. This was not included in Det. Quarterman’s or Detective Middleton’s reports. In Detective Quarterman’s testimony at trial recounting the events at Club Asia, he said Rev. White told him the car “looked like” the car he had seen and that when he saw the defendants at Club Asia Rev. White said, “that’s what they were wearing.” On cross examination the soldiers’ attorney asked, “You didn’t ask him, well look at the faces of those three people and see if they are the ones?” The detective lied saying “No, I did not and I- you know, like I say, I still ask myself that question today, why I didn’t do so.” At a 2013 Post Conviction Hearing, Det. Middleton and the Prosecutor David Lock both admitted they knew that Rev. White could not identify the shooters.
Rev. White explained in his affidavit “Because of the darkness and distance between me and the car, I couldn’t see the facial features of the shooters very clearly if at all.” Centurion’s investigation included a new, visual, forensic science analysis of the crime scene which demonstrated it was impossible for him to make facial identification of the shooters under those circumstances. Centurion also consulted an expert in eyewitness identification who explained the near impossibility of identifying suspects in the circumstances under which he witnessed the crime.
Through a 2011 Freedom of Information request to the Savannah Police Department, Centurion discovered additional, exculpatory evidence which the prosecution had not disclosed, thereby denying the soldiers a fair trial. Centurion found a police report from the same night Stanley Jackson was murdered of white males with military haircuts driving through the streets of the all black Yamacraw Village housing project in Savannah threatening to shoot black men standing on street corners. This happened at 1am on February 1, 1992. By that hour, police had already taken our soldiers into custody. This previously undisclosed report was material as it suggested alternate suspects. The knowledge of that report alone could have changed the jury’s verdict.
The soldiers had nearly exhausted their possibilities for relief through the courts before Centurion’s involvement, but Centurion persisted in efforts to exonerate them. Centurion filed separate Writs of Habeas Corpus on their behalf in 2011, and several more writs and petitions over the next six years. Finally, in November 2017 the Georgia Supreme Court vacated the earlier decisions in a vote of 9-0 and ordered a new trial. While they did not reverse decisions that rejected Rev. White’s recantation, they did say that the undisclosed Yamacraw Village report “clearly would have been helpful to the defense; it was evidence that others similar in appearance were threatening a racial attack similar to that alleged to have been suffered by Jackson, but three hours after his slaying, when the defendants were already in custody.”
Ken Gardiner, Mark Jones and Dominic Lucci were released on bond on December 20, 2017 to await a new trial. On July 12, 2018 the prosecution dismissed all charges.
Today, Ken lives in Texas very near Mark Jones; the two men work together at a family business. We are proud to support the Savannah 3 as they rebuild their lives.