When Austin Todd Stryker’s trial starts on Nov. 1 for his alleged role in Hannah Bender’s murder, his lawyers will still have to argue against the state connecting his motive to gang-related activity.
Defendant Jerry Nesbit Harper will still be tried in tandem with Stryker after Northeastern Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin denied a motion to sever.
During a pre-trial hearing on Oct. 8, motions to continue or reschedule the trial, suppress cell phone evidence and quash Stryker’s felony murder and weapons counts were also denied.
On July 27, Stryker, 24, of Dawson County, and Harper, 79, of Forsyth County, were re-indicted for their alleged involvement in the shooting and stabbing death of Bender, 21, a Lumpkin County resident.
In addition to the existing offences, Stryker was charged with 10 more violations of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act for a total of 11 counts. Harper was charged with two more for a total of three such counts.
These additional charges reflect the prosecution’s intent to link events surrounding Bender’s murder to the defendants’ alleged participation in a small criminal gang called “THIS.”
Earlier in July, Gosselin struck count 12, the gang violation, from Stryker’s first indictment. In her order, she cited that that particular charge failed to provide crucial details such as what gang Stryker was alleged to be involved with; his involvement with said group and relevant predicate acts.
These kinds of details, the order stated, would help alert the defendant to potential witnesses or acts that could be used against him at trial. That order concluded that count 12 be struck because it also failed to charge Stryker with any of the 10 gang-related acts listed in Georgia law OCGA 16-15-4.
The state took a different approach when it chose to re-indict Stryker and Harper. In the second indictment, their gang-related counts each read as connected to a specific previous count.
In light of those charges, Gosselin’s denial of the motions for complete discovery and exclusion of intrinsic act evidence marks an important step in the case.
The prosecution successfully argued that under the relevant statute, they could introduce at trial another 2019 case in which Stryker is a defendant, a pending case of armed robbery in Lumpkin County.
Mention of that case came up when Dawson defendants Isaac Thomas Huff and Dylan Patrick Reid testified at their plea and sentencing hearing on April 7, 2021. As reported in a Forsyth News article then, their testimonies alleged that Stryker coordinated Bender’s murder and Harper approved of it.
“Each testified [then] saying the reason he (Stryker) wanted Hannah Bender dead is because he thought she would snitch on the armed robbery,” Assistant District Attorney Shiv Sachdeva said emphatically at the hearing on Oct. 8.
Sachdeva went on to say that evidence including Huff’s and Reid’s testimonies will be used to prove motive for the murder rather than prove the separate act of armed robbery.
Defense attorney Brock Johnson lamented that he and his colleague, Kyle Denslow, don’t have full discovery materials from Lumpkin County to make a fair judgment about the robbery’s greater or lesser role in the murder motive.
However, ADA Conley Greer clarified that the defense counsel already has the necessary evidence regarding the robbery. Ultimately, Greer and Sachdeva argued that information about the armed robbery goes toward establishing the gang-related aspects of Bender’s murder.
As to the motion for severing Harper’s case from Stryker’s, Judge Gosselin agreed with the prosecution that jurors won’t confuse the two defendants’ charges.
“For judicial economy’s sake...the indictment makes it very clear who committed the murder...we have to show he was the member of a gang and committed the murder with his (Harper’s) approval,” she said.
The judge decided to wait to rule on the motion to allow or not allow autopsy, exhumation and in-life photographs of Bender. ADA Sachdeva committed to letting the defense know within a week about what exact images the state plans on using as evidence.
“This case is going to be tried on Nov. 1,” Gosselin said. “There’s no continuance. I’ll make myself available between now and then. This case is of paramount importance to get done to everybody.”
DCN will provide updates as this case progresses.