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Supreme Court upholds life sentence in Dougherty murder case

— The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the life in prison sentence imposed on Roger James Reed in 2004 in Dougherty Superior Court.

Reed, 43, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole in May 2004 for the Jan. 8, 2004, death of Willie Gatson, 60, who died from injuries he suffered in a Dec. 29, 2003, assault by Reed. The court announced today that Reed's sentence had been upheld.

According to reports at the time, Reed attacked Gatson and Gatson's sister, Nettie Porter, 54 at the time of the attack, with a hatchet in Porter's home.

After a dispute involving alcohol broke out in Porter's kitchen, Gatson and Reed got into a fight. Porter ran next door to call police, then returned to the kitchen with the hatchet into the residence in an attempt to scare Reed out of the home.

Reed, 35 at the time, got control of the weapon and used it to attack the siblings. Gatson received several skull fractures and facial cuts in the assault.

Gatson was originally charged with aggravated assault, but the murder charge was added when Gatson died. He was also sentenced to 20 years in prison on a pair of aggravated assault charges for which he also was found guilty. Before the 2003 assaults, he had served two sentences in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one for robbery and another for robbery by intimidation, according to the Department of Corrections. Reed has been in the state prison system since July 2004.

In another opinion released today by the Georgia Supreme Court, the court ruled in a unanimous opinion in a Richmond County case that a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole is not a violation of the Georgia or U.S. constitutions.

Michael Eugene Williams, who was 20 when he shot and killed a restaurant owner in Richmond County in 2009, had argued that the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.

According to the Supreme Court's summaries of opinions, Williams' attorneys argued that the Georgia statute was unconstitutionally vague, lacking standards to guide judges on when to impose life without parole. They argued that the imposition of the sentence on an "emotionally immature 20-year-old adolescent" constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

"We disagree," Justice Robert Benham wrote in the unanimous opinion Tuesday. "Traditionally, it is the task of the legislature, not the courts, to define crimes and set the range of sentences. ... The Supreme Court of the United States has determined that, outside the context of a death penalty case, there is no constitutional requirement for an individualized determination that a criminal punishment is appropriate."

"[T]he argument that appellant's sentencing lacked the trappings of constitutional due process, under either the state or federal constitutions, is unavailing," the opinion said. "The trial court did not violate appellant's due process rights by sentencing him to life without parole."

The court ruled the sentence does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. "There is no state or federal constitutional prohibition against sentencing an adult, albeit a young adult, to a term of life in prison without parole for the commission of a homicide," the opinion stated.