For the first time in 11 years, Weldon Wayne Carr is, in his words, "finally breathing as a free man."
Carr, a prominent Atlanta businessman convicted of killing his wife in 1993, learned Monday that the Georgia Supreme Court had ended the state's murder prosecution against him.
In a unanimous decision, the court found that Fulton County prosecutors, by waiting more than four years to announce they were ready to retry Carr, had unfairly prejudiced his right to a fair trial.
Carr, owner of Hastings Nature & Garden Center on Peachtree Road, called the case a "tremendously tragic miscarriage of justice."
"My conclusion is to say the public would be as shocked as I was," Carr, 68, said in a telephone interview. "I was naive. I assumed I had some rights. I assumed I could have faith in the old principle of justice that you're assumed to be innocent. I found the reverse to be true."
District Attorney Paul Howard said he regretted the case's outcome. "I continue to believe Wayne Carr should stand trial for the murder of his wife," said Howard, who has been Fulton's top prosecutor since 1997 -- the year Carr's conviction was overturned.
In 1994, a Fulton County jury convicted Carr of setting his Sandy Springs home on fire to kill his wife, Patricia. Prosecutors said Carr had discovered she was having an affair and alleged Carr knocked his wife unconscious before setting their home ablaze.
Carr was acquitted of aggravated assault, but convicted of arson and murder and sentenced to life in prison. Jurors pointed to strong circumstantial evidence: In the days before the fire, Carr checked on his fire insurance, made copies of his and his wife's wills, told his son to remove belongings from the family home and put valuables in a safe-deposit box.
But Carr's conviction was overturned in 1997 when the state Supreme Court found the trial judge improperly admitted unreliable evidence that a trained dog had detected a fire accelerant at the scene.
The court also strongly rebuked then-prosecutor Nancy Grace -- now host of Court TV's "Closing Arguments" -- of engaging in "inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal conduct in the course of the trial."
This included, Carr's appeal said, an illegal search of Carr's home to allow one of Grace's expert witnesses to view the crime scene and allowing, before the trial, a CNN television crew to enter Carr's home while filming a feature on her.
Years of delay
Before deciding whether it would retry Carr, Howard's office agreed to hire a new arson expert to investigate the case.
But years passed and no expert was retained. Finally, Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes said that the case would be dismissed if no expert was hired by Oct. 25, 2001.
On that day, prosecutors announced they had hired an expert and were ready to retry Carr.
But they acknowledged the expert did not conclude the fire was the result of arson, the Georgia Supreme Court ruling on Monday said.
Carr's lawyer, Don Samuel, moved to have the case dismissed on speedy trial grounds. Samuel noted that because so much time had lapsed, three key defense witnesses had died or were so sick they could not testify.
Lawyer: 'No evidence'
Barnes' decision to grant the motion was upheld Monday.
"Some people might misconceive this as his getting away with it or it being a technicality," Samuel said. "But the fact of the matter is the reason the state waited so long was because they had no evidence with which to prosecute him."
Carr, who was incarcerated for several years but has been out on bond since 1998, said there was "not one iota" of direct evidence against him and said he has an explanation for every piece of circumstantial evidence used against him.
"I'm outraged," Carr said. "I'm determined to make the public aware, from my experience, what can happen to them and to their children and their families through prosecutorial misconduct and through a system that thrives on wins and losses and does not pay any real attention to the principles of justice.