Nearly three weeks after the slayings of a southeast Georgia couple along the Amicalola River, there’s increasing speculation that one or both suspects could face the death penalty.
Such a development would be rare in Dawson County, whose last capital case was more than 15 years ago, and quite possibly expensive.
Neither Jessie James Kilgore, 41, or his nephew, 27-year-old Benjamin Kelly Mullinax, has been indicted on the charges, though officials say the incident would appear to meet the state’s criteria for pursuing the death penalty.
“It’s a double homicide, which is a valid charge for a capital murder case,” said John Cagle, head of investigations for the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office. “That and any aggravated charges that may also come with the indictment.”
John Wilbanks, assistant district attorney for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, did not comment on the possibility.
A grand jury is scheduled to review the cases of Kilgore and Mullinax, who are being held without bond at the Dawson County Detention Center, in March. Additional charges are possible.
To date, each man has been charged with two counts of malice murder and two counts of tampering with evidence in the Dec. 19 deaths of Paul and Jennifer Budrawich, who was Kilgore’s stepdaughter.
Authorities say Kilgore shot the couple with a small caliber handgun and tossed their bodies into the Amicalola. Mullinax was reportedly with him at the time.
Mike Berg heads the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, a 15-member panel that serves as the administrative support for the state’s 43 circuit defender offices. Members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor or speaker of the house.
Berg, who is also chairman of the Dawson County commission, said he has spoken to District Attorney Lee Darragh about the possibility of pursuing the death penalty.
“Lee told me it’s still too early in the case to know what he’ll do, but there have been discussions,” Berg said.
If Darragh were to seek the death penalty against one or both defendants, Berg said the case could cost the county more than $1 million.
“We don’t budget for those kind of things. We don’t have that internally,” he said.
“But in no way should that be a consideration if the district attorney decides to seek the death penalty.”
Berg said another issue, which has also been debated at the state level, involves potential conflicts in death penalty cases with multiple suspects represented by public defenders.
“There was a recent case that said public defenders for co-conspirators can’t even be in the same circuit,” he said. “But each circuit makes a decision if they have a conflict if they can or can’t handle it.”
During a hearing Dec. 23, Kilgore named Rob McNeill from the Dawson County Public Defedender’s Office as his counsel.
Lee Parks, an attorney from Hall County, which is also part of the two-county Northeastern Judicial Circuit, has been appointed to represent Mullinax.
If the death penalty is pursued, Berg said, the state public defender’s office in Atlanta would also appoint an attorney.
Dawson County’s most recent death penalty case unfolded in 1994, with one of three men convicted in the shooting death of Keith Evans sentenced to death.
Tommy Waldrip, who is now 63, is awaiting execution at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.
His son, John Mark Waldrip, and another relative, Howard Livingston, both received life sentences for their role in the crime.
Evans, a Dawson County man, was set to testify against the three in a burglary case.
Authorities have not released a motive in the Budrawich slayings. However, family members have said the couple was about to reclaim custody of their two children, as well as a third son, who Kilgore fathered with Jennifer Budrawich.
The couple had traveled from Effingham County to visit the boys the weekend they were killed.
Authorities found their bodies a day apart after receiving a frantic 911 call from a woman saying she was going to be shot.
The call was from Jennifer Budrawich. A woman’s voice could be heard asking someone, “Why are you shooting us? Why did you bring me down here to the river?”
A man’s voice on tape replied, “I’m going to kill both of you.”
This morning, Kilgore has a bond revocation hearing in Superior Court. At issue is whether he violated a $35,000 property bond from a burglary charge in May.
The district attorney’s office opposed bond following his May arrest and the search of his home, where several firearms were recovered.
According to the bail order, Kilgore posed “no threat or danger to any person, to the community or to any property in this community.”