I-TEAM: Inmate’s battle for freedom won’t be over anytime soon

Published: Oct. 24, 2023 at 4:48 PM EDT
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SANDERSVILLE, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Tuesday marked a second day of testimony in a hearing for a prisoner fighting what Georgia Innocence Project calls his wrongful conviction.

It won’t be the hearing’s last day.

The evidentiary hearing began Monday and continued Tuesday, but it will need to go on longer, probably at a time to be determined in the future.

Erik Heard was arrested back in 2009 for a murder he maintains he did not commit.

He got two consecutive life sentences in connection with the crime in College Park, just outside Atlanta.

Erik Heard in court on Oct. 23, 2023.
Erik Heard in court on Oct. 23, 2023.(WRDW/WAGT)

Two men broke into a home and held two sisters at gunpoint, killing one of them.

College Park is more than two hours from Sandersville, but 14 years after the crime, that’s where Heard is serving his prison time – at Washington State Prison.

So that’s where the hearing is.

It’s what’s called a habeas corpus hearing – so the judge isn’t deciding whether Heard is guilty or innocent.

A jury has already decided that, and the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction.


This is to decide whether his constitutional rights were violated at his trial – and if so, whether it affected the outcome.

One of the issues in question is a composite sketch that was circulated.

The sketch artist, Marla Lawson, testified Monday that when she was finished, the surviving sister wasn’t confident it looked like the perpetrator.

“I would describe her as spent. She had nothing left to give. She could not concentrate on anything but her dead sister,” said Lawson during her testimony.

She suggested not using it, but investigators did anyway.

It’s how Heard was identified as a suspect with no physical evidence connected to the crime.

In other words, a sketch that did not actually resemble the perpetrator was used to develop Heard as a suspect in the case, his advocates say.

“After that, Mr. Heard’s photo was put into a highly suggestive photo array for the surviving victim to view. He was the only person who even remotely matched her description of the shooter,” Georgia Innocence Project Senior Attorney Christina Cribbs said.

Lineup photo in Erik Heard case.
Lineup photo in Erik Heard case.(Contributed)

On Tuesday, the Georgia Innocence Project called a witness identification expert, who said under oath, in the hundreds of cases she’s worked, she’s never seen police interview a victim under such duress and so close to the crime happening.

She testified even in officer involved shootings, investigators typically wait 24 hours to do interviews.

In the hearing, the Georgia Innocence Project is raising 11 claims, arguing they all are constitutional violations.

Some are very specific and were outlined in opening statements Monday morning:

  • The state’s failure to disclose fingerprint evidence (there wasn’t any linking Heard to the scene).
  • The state’s failure to disclose victim’s services notes. The surviving victim stated she believed the prosecution had DNA evidence and info that linked a gun to Erik Heard (neither of those is true).
  • The district attorney had evidence of additional suspects (who committed similar crimes in the area).

Several other claims have to do with ineffective appellate counsel.

The Georgia Innocence Project claims prosecutors failed to disclose evidence at trial that would have helped Heard, including fingerprint evidence from the crime scene that did not match Heard.

Heard also claims prosecutors presented and failed to correct false and misleading testimony.


The hearing was only supposed to take two days, but it’s far from over.

The Georgia Innocence Project still has a number of witnesses to call. Then the other side, called a respondent in a habeas corpus case, also has witnesses.

So now both sides will have to get together and decide on a later date to continue this.

The judge does not have a deadline for making a ruling. If Heard’s habeas petition is granted, his conviction will be vacated and he will have the right to a new, fair trial.

There’s a lot at stake here – possibly a man’s freedom – so the I-TEAM will be watching.

Another investigation by the I-TEAM ...