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Death penalty 'on the table'

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Determining whether to ask for the death penalty is just one of many things District Attorney Greg Edwards is mulling when it comes to how his office will prosecute Jordan Harris, the man who he believes shot Albany business owner Walter Phelps.

Without divulging the other, Edwards said Monday that the Phelps case is one of two in which he is considering seeking the death penalty.

"It's on the table and something that I'm contemplating, although I haven't made a decision yet," Edwards said.

Edwards and his prosecutors contend that Harris shot Phelps, a former Lee County commissioner, as he was opening up his hardware store on the 2500 block of North Slappey Boulevard on July 3. Former employee Ryan Richardson and Roderick Ferrell have also been charged in connection with the shooting.

On Saturday -- just over a month after the shooting -- Phelps succumbed from what has been described as a blood clot in his lungs. Phelps' death prompted Edwards to upgrade Harris' charges from aggravated assault to murder.

"It's a decision that's being made based on discussions I've had with the treating physician and investigators," Edwards said.

Use of the death penalty has been increasingly rare, given the high cost for both the prosecution and defense involved, especially since the onset of a brutal recession that has decimated state and local government budgets.

Death penalty trials are typical long and expensive ordeals that require specialized attorneys for indigent defendants.

While he says it isn't "vital" to the case, Edwards says that his office is also working to determine whether comments Phelps made in a report to police in June that Richardson threatened him had anything to do with his shooting.

"It's not something that is vital to us, but obviously we'd like to look at the transcripts and court documents as part of our preparation for the case," Edwards said. "I don't have to prove why they were there, just that they murdered Mr. Phelps."

Phelps' wallet was taken during the incident and his credit card was later used at a store in Lake Park.