Jay Abt
Jay Abt (John Disney/Daily Report)

A recent acquittal in a Fulton County murder trial shows that victories in the criminal defense arena are relative.

A jury on Oct. 16 found Edgar Hubbard not guilty of kidnapping and killing a purportedly high-living drug dealer who was found dead in the trunk of his burning luxury car, but the panel convicted Hubbard of arson and theft by receiving stolen property.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville sentenced Hubbard to eight years in prison, plus 12 years on probation. But defense attorney Jay Abt said Hubbard, 42, will be eligible for parole in two years, given the time that he has been in jail awaiting trial for the 2012 death.

Abt said that a conversation with jurors after the trial revealed that, “a lot of them didn’t buy our alibi” that his client wasn’t at the scene of the crime. But he said shoddy police work and other factors produced enough reasonable doubt to clear his client of the most serious charges.

Abt and cocounsel Katie Hingerty faced tough evidence presented by senior assistant district attorneys Demone Lee and Claire Farley during the eight-day trial.

Prosecutors showed cellphone triangulation records indicating that Hubbard had been at the Covington home of the victim, Gregory Harris, in the days before the killing, said Abt. The records also suggested Hubbard had been near the site of the torched car, and a car matching Hubbard’s white Corvette had also been seen speeding away from the site, Abt added.

Hubbard had taken selfies of himself sporting the dead man’s diamond-encrusted Rolex and $100,000-plus Audemars Piguet wristwatches, Abt said.

And prosecutors showed a text message from Hubbard’s phone to his codefendant right before the car was set ablaze, saying, “I need more gas.”

Abt said his side offered to plead guilty to reduced charges in return for eight years in prison. “Then we sort of bid against ourselves, and said he was willing to do 10, but [they] turned us down. They offered 25 [years], and we just said, ‘That’s just silly.’ Now, lo and behold, my client gets a parolable sentence.”

Abt said the prosecutors tried a very good case, but they may have been hamstrung by Newton County crime scene investigators who failed to search for key evidence when they swept Harris’ home, and by testimony that Hubbard and his then-wife often swapped cellphones.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he couldn’t comment on the case because a trial is pending against one of Hubbard’s codefendants.

According to Abt, court records and contemporaneous news accounts, Harris, 49, was reported missing from his home in Covington on July 13, 2012. In the early hours of July 14, firefighters found Harris’ Infiniti M35 engulfed in flames behind a vacant house in southwest Atlanta. After the fire was extinguished, investigators found a body in the truck that was later identified as Harris’ through dental records.

The medical examiner later ruled that he had died of asphyxiation, and Abt said a rag had been stuffed into his mouth and a plastic bag tied around his head. Two months later, police arrested Hubbard and Andrew Wilson, now 46, on charges of murder, kidnapping and arson. Wilson remains jailed and his trial is pending, Abt said.

Abt said the state contended that Hubbard and Wilson came to Atlanta from Detroit to buy 10 kilos of cocaine from Harris for $400,000. Harris, he said, was “a well-known figure in the drug world” who owned two homes and several cars, including the Infiniti, a Porsche and an Audi R8.

The state argued that, instead of buying the drugs, Hubbard and Wilson beat and bound Harris, choking and gagging him and placing him in the trunk of the Infiniti. They then drove the car to a spot near Cascade Avenue in Fulton County, according to prosecutors, doused it with gasoline and set it alight.

Police investigators found Harris’ house ransacked and a bucket of bleach they believed had been used to clean up, Abt said.

“Our narrative, obviously, was very different,” said Abt. “We contended that Mr. Hubbard had been though a rough patch in his marriage, and had been cheating on his wife with several women.”

Hubbard’s wife, Gwen Hubbard, found out about one of the affairs and in turn began seeing Wilson, who had served time in prison with Edgar Hubbard’s brother and was involved in the drug trade.

“Gwen Hubbard was very attracted to the drug-dealing lifestyle: the money, the drugs,” Abt said, claiming she was involved with Wilson as he set up the deal with Harris.

Abt said police were aware of Wilson and Edgar Hubbard and had been tracking and triangulating their cellphones prior to Harris’ murder. The records showed that their cellphones had been at Harris’ house in the days preceding his murder and had been within 100 yards of his Infiniti when it was burning.

Records also showed calls between Wilson, Hubbard and Harris prior to the murder, Abt said. And there was, of course, the “I need more gas” text from Hubbard’s phone to Wilson’s.

Abt produced testimony from Hubbard’s mistress and her daughter that he had been at their home when the killing occurred, he said. He also argued that Gwen Hubbard had exchanged cars with her husband the morning of Harris’ death and thus had both the Corvette and his cellphone, which he left in it.

Gwen Hubbard, he argued, had been using her husband’s cellphone—the couple had a least a half-dozen between them, he said—and the calls the state said were from Edgar Hubbard to Wilson and Harris were actually from her.

At trial, Abt said, “Gwen Hubbard was nowhere to be found.

“The state didn’t call her, and we couldn’t find her. We said, ‘all they have is cellphone records and a text message.’”

“We demonstrated that Gwen was in possession of that phone at critical times,” he added.

Abt said Gwen Hubbard had given Edgar Hubbard the expensive watches he sported in his cellphone photos.

“He said, ‘Absolutely she gave them to me; a few days later, she made me give them back,’” said Abt. Neither the watches nor the cocaine were ever recovered, he noted.

Abt said the most damaging testimony for the state came from the Newton County Sheriff’s Department crime scene investigator, who repeatedly testified that he had failed to take fingerprints or DNA samples from Harris’ home.

“It was just bad police work,” he said. “They had no DNA from the house, no prints that could be matched. I told the jury, ‘If the police had done their job, we’d know who committed this murder. But they didn’t, and we don’t. That’s reasonable doubt.’”

A representative from the Newton County Sheriff’s Department could not be reached Tuesday afternoon.

The trial ended on Oct. 15, and the next day the jury acquitted Hubbard on all but the arson and receiving stolen property charges.

Abt said he spoke to several of the jurors afterward.

“They didn’t buy that Gwen Hubbard was involved,” he said. “But the sloppy police work and the triangulation issue really worked against them.”

Keith Adams, who represents Wilson, was busy with an unrelated trial but said he looked forward to trying his client’s case.