Following an hour-long hearing Tuesday, it remains uncertain whether Hannah Bender’s convicted killer will get a new trial.
During a March 14 Zoom hearing, Superior Court Chief Judge Kathlene Gosselin mostly denied 26-year-old Austin Todd Stryker’s request for a new trial, but opted to reserve her ruling on part of the motion.
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Stryker was convicted in November 2021 by a Dawson County jury on all 24 charges tied to the murder of Bender, 21, of Lumpkin County. In December 2021 Stryker was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gosselin denied Stryker’s claims of prosecution’s potentially harmful arguments against the defense’s theories during closing and the use of burial and autopsy photographs of Bender.
But Gosselin reserved her ruling on the defense’s concerns about not being able to fully address defendants Isaac Huff’s and Dylan Reid’s plea deals during closing arguments.
One of Stryker’s attorneys, public defender Kyle Denslow, argued that Huff and Reid were also facing murder charges before their plea deals in 2021.
“That was before the jury already [during the trial]…so why couldn’t we get into it at closing?” Denslow asked.
Supervising Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer recounted the litany of physical evidence, such as blood and clothing, that authorities used against Stryker.
“Without [co-defendants] Huff and Reid, the evidence of this man’s guilt is overwhelming. With it, I don’t even know how to describe to you how strong the evidence is,” Greer said.
Out of what Gosselin called “an abundance of caution,” she allowed Denslow’s concerns about the five-year probation sentence for a co-defendant in Stryker’s pending Lumpkin County case, Bailey Williams.
Denslow called the punishment “a bit alarming,” given that the sentence was given in connection with an alleged armed robbery, the robbery that’s been linked to the motive in Bender’s killing.
Denslow also said Stryker, who’s an inmate at an out-of-county state jail, “doesn’t want to be present” or transported to any proceedings related to his bid for a new trial.
An updated July 2021 indictment accused Stryker of killing Bender in the early morning of Sept. 15, 2019, by shooting and stabbing her. Before Stryker’s November 2021 trial, prosecutors successfully got evidence introduced alleging that his motive to kill Hannah Bender was tied to his belief that she might go to police about a summer 2019 robbery in Lumpkin County.
During an April 2021 joint plea and sentencing hearing, co-defendants Isaac Huff and Dylan Reid testified about their and others’ involvement in a small gang called “THIS.” There and at Stryker’s trial, Huff said that the gang members allegedly committed armed robbery at Dollar Generals in Dawsonville and Dahlonega in the summer of 2019.
At the end of the April 2021 hearing, Huff received a sentence of 12 years in prison and 18 years on probation for his role in covering up Bender’s death.
Reid got 20 years with 15 years on probation for the additional culpability of tampering with evidence.
Then in October 2021, just before Stryker’s trial, co-defendant Jerry Harper pleaded guilty in Dawson County to multiple gang-related charges for helping him evade police and approving of Bender’s murder. That December, Harper received a sentence of 20 years in prison.
In April 2022, Harper was indicted in Forsyth County on one count each of concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence of Bender’s murder.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to another 20 years in Forsyth County for his role in concealing Bender’s death there.
During a hearing on July 29, 2022, Stryker’s wife, Elizabeth Donaldson, pleaded guilty for her role in the cover-up of Bender’s killing.
She was sentenced to 12 months of local custody and two years of house arrest.
In a separate indictment, Bailey Williams was accused of tampering with evidence in Lumpkin County as part of the cover up. She has entered a plea of not guilty for her tampering with evidence charge, and a trial date has been continued in that case.
Charges have only been filed in Lumpkin County for the armed robbery there.
Stryker is charged with aggravated assault and armed robbery, while Williams and Huff were charged with being parties to the 2019 crime at the South Chestatee Street Dollar General, according to a June 2022 indictment.
During her testimony at Stryker’s trial, Williams said she was the alleged getaway driver for the Dahlonega robbery, something Reid also mentioned, and that Stryker was the alleged robber.
In December 2022, Huff pleaded not guilty. In January, Stryker also pleaded not guilty.
At a Feb. 8 hearing in Lumpkin County, Williams pleaded guilty for her part in the armed robbery. She was sentenced under the First Offender Act to five years of probation, with time deemed served.