Cowart Murder Trial Off to Rocky Start Over Evidence, Juror Kinship Issues

A murder trial in Bulloch County got off to a rocky start Tuesday morning due to an evidence issue and the replacement of a juror – all before 9:30 A.M.

Case Background 

Dustin Leigh Cowart was arrested and charged with the murder of Ray “Buddy” Beasley on October 27, 2020 after the two arranged to meet up at the intersection of Rocky Ford Road and Mixon Road. Authorities contend that Cowart was sending harassing communications to Beasley’s fiance, Kacie Mallard Cowart, who is the ex-wife of Dustin Cowart. The two met in person to sort out the issue that night.

In November 2020, a preliminary hearing was held in conjunction with a bond hearing. At that time, Investigator Reid Odom of the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office testified that a friend, B.M., had driven Beasley to a predetermined location because Beasley had been drinking and did not want to drive. Inv. Odom told the court that Beasley said in text messages that he did not want to fight Cowart and that Cowart alluded to acts and threats of violence in the text exchanges.

Inv. Odom also testified that Cowart told investigators the following in an interview:

Beasley put his hand in his [Cowart’s] face and Cowart told him not to do that and pushed his hand out of the way. That’s when Beasley tried to pull him from the car, Cowart caught himself on the door with his knee, brandished his gun, and Beasley jumped further into the car to try to grab the handgun. Beasley had the handgun, Cowart snatched it from him and fired two shots.[Paraphrased from testimony of Odom – Odom did not quote the interview explicitly in his testimony]

Judge Michael Muldrew found that ample probable cause existed to bind the case over to a grand jury for consideration. Muldrew did not render a decision on the request for bond and Cowart was indicted on a handful of charges in February of 2021

In June 2021, Cowart sought immunity from prosecution from the court, again arguing self defense, but the court denied the request and the case moved toward trial. 

In November 2022, the case was continued from the trial calendar because of evidence that was not previously sent off to the crime lab for analysis. 

TRIAL

Before the jury was brought in, Assistant District Attorney Ben Edwards addressed the court with a motion regarding evidence that was provided to the defense team only last week.

Evidence Not in Case File

Edwards told the court that defense attorneys asked the Sheriff’s Office last week for body camera footage of two responding deputies. The request sought videos that Edwards said were not previously in the state’s case file and, therefore, were not turned over to the defense. He told the court that the state did not intend to introduce the videos as evidence and would not object to the defense doing so, but asked the court to bar the defense from mentioning the timing of the evidence turnover in front of the jury.

Edwards also said the state had announced it would consent to a continuance, if the defense sought one, but it was his understanding that the defense would not be seeking an extension on the trial date. 

Evidence Is Among “Most Important” in the Case

Defense attorney Matt Hube had a different perspective on the timeline. He said he was initially told that no body camera footage existed, but a day later, one body camera file was delivered to his office, followed by another a few days later.

Hube told the court that the second body camera footage file was arguably “the most important” in the case because it showed the initial interview with one of the state’s main witnesses, the one who drove Buddy Beasley to the scene and claims to have witnessed the shooting.

“He made statements with regard to the actions of Mr. Beasley that directly contradict what [the witness] says in a later statement to Investigator Sims,” Hube said. “That goes directly to our defense about the investigation.”

Hube’s argument is that the case hinges considerably on the lack of consideration for Cowart’s self-defense argument  by the Sheriff’s Office from the beginning, prompting a less than thorough investigation.

“These body cams, we can’t emphasize to the court enough how important [Deputy] Doug Harrell’s body cam, were not even part of the case file at that time…last week and that is a direct…direct as you can get statement, evidence, proof that the evidence that was severely lacking…some of the most important evidence in the case. So for us not to be able to bring to the attention of the jury that the state didn’t even have it, they didn’t have it in the case file, is a large part of our defense,” Hube said.

He also said he was given an audio file last week of an interview with another witness that had previously only been referenced in a summary in the case file. Hube said he contacted BCSO investigators about the recording, to which he was immediately told there was not one. Shortly thereafter, Hube says he was told there was, in fact, a recording of that interview and it was provided to him.

“I misspoke, I found this on my old work phone backup, or something to that effect,” is what Hube said he was told. “Again, that goes directly to part of our defense, which is that the investigation was lacking, the audio of the interview was not even a part of the case file. I think it’s important we let the jury know that that’s the type of investigation that resulted in us being here today.”

Judge Michael Muldrew ultimately ruled in favor of the state, but said he would allow the defense to mention the body camera footage not being in the case file, but not discuss anything about the documents being handed over by the state at a specific time.

Muldrew said the late delivery of the audio interview only mentioned in a case summary was ‘totally irrelevant’ to what the jury was to decide. 

Hube said the defense ‘strongly disagreed’ with the court on the decision, 

“To not allow us to talk to the jury about the fact that Doug Harrell’s body cam was riding around in his car for two and a half years and nobody ever thought to go ask him, “Doug you were out there, do you have body cam?”…it is a direct comment on the quality of this investigation. And again, that’s part of our defense.”

Muldrew pushed back on Hube’s argument, saying the issue was not raised last week when it occurred, only today ahead of trial. Muldrew referenced a brief response that was filed by Hube on Friday that was a week late. “Everybody’s doing the best they can with what they have to work with, I’m sure,” Muldrew said. 

Hube replied, “In the midst of that time frame, we’re trying to do their job in asking for discovery that’s not a part of the case file and now you’re hamstringing us.”

“I’m not hamstringing you,” Muldrew said. “You can go into the investigation, but I said I’m not going to allow you to go into the timing and discovery – it’s a totally different issue. The timing of it is for the court’s consideration and the court will determine whether they have done that, it’s not a jury question.”

Muldrew summarized the delayed evidence issues as ‘the human condition,’ a statement with which Hube vehemently disagreed. 

Juror Related to the Case

Also addressed before the trial began was a juror issue in which a juror discovered after jury selection earlier this month that she was related to the family of the deceased in the case. The juror is married to the first cousin of Beasley’s father.

Judge Muldrew asked her if she was aware of the connection during jury selection, to which she replied she “was not sure.” She said her husband informed her after the fact that they were, in fact, kin.

Hube said that the juror would be legally prohibited from serving from this point further, now that she is aware of the familial link, and asked that she be relieved of her duties. The state did not object and an alternate was instated to serve. 

Thirteen jurors, including one alternate, were then seated and the court prepared them for opening statements.

Check back to TheGeorgiaVirtue.com for more coverage on the trial.

Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast.'

Sign up for her weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gzYAZT

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