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Jury convicts man in arson, murder case

photo: metro
  Steven Culberson hugs his wife, Sheila, after Michael W. Bryant Jr. was convicted of killing his aunt Edith Ann Haynes in 2000. The Culbersons live in Columbus, Ga.
ANDREW DAVIS TUCKER/STAFF
Edith Ann Haynes' nephews smiled and nodded at the jurors who sat in judgment of Michael W. Bryant Jr. on Monday evening and convicted him of murder.

The previous week, Mr. Bryant, 32, had been the one to try to catch jurors' eyes and give them a nod. After the verdict in Richmond County Superior Court, however, Mr. Bryant managed to give only a parting glance to his family before deputies hustled him out of the courtroom.

"(The jurors) have to take all the credit for the verdict," Assistant District Attorney Patricia Johnson said.

After deliberating 2 1/2 hours Monday, the jurors found Mr. Bryant guilty of malice murder, arson in the first degree and burglary in the Nov. 15, 2000, slaying of Ms. Haynes, 57.

"Thank God, in some way this woman's death has been vindicated," Ms. Johnson said.

photo: metro
  Michael W. Bryant Jr. (center) looks toward his family as he is led from the courtroom after being convicted of burglary, arson and murder in the 2000 death of his co-worker Edith Ann Haynes. He was found guilty Monday.
ANDREW DAVIS TUCKER/STAFF
Until Monday, said nephew Edward Culberson, he wasn't sure whether it would happen.

"At first, it seemed like it was all going to be swept under the rug," he said.

His aunt wasn't a rich or influential Augusta resident; her only relatives - a niece and three nephews - lived out of town, he said. For two years, they worried.

Nephew Steven Culberson credited Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Scott Peebles' tenacious investigation and Ms. Johnson's and District Attorney Danny Craig's legal skills for Mr. Bryant's conviction.

Ms. Johnson said after the verdict that the case also had her worried, as does any case without eyewitnesses or a confession. The prosecutor has to build a case around motive, "and fortunately in this case we had tons of it," she said. It all pointed to Mr. Bryant, she said.

Defense attorney Maureen Floyd argued Monday that the prosecutors had no proof, only smoke and mirrors.

"There's no evidence. It's a smear campaign," she said.

Ms. Floyd showed jurors a photograph of Mr. Bryant's Evans home, valued at nearly $200,000, and a photograph of the $38,000 Smith Drive home in Augusta that Mr. Bryant was buying from Ms. Haynes.

It made no sense that Mr. Bryant would kill his co-worker over that residence, Ms. Floyd argued. Everyone knew he still owed Ms. Haynes $25,000, and Mr. Bryant even told the police that, she said.

Mr. Craig countered in his closing argument that only Mr. Bryant knew about his fraudulent recording of a deed to that Augusta house. That deed would have been discovered Nov. 15, 2000, the day Ms. Haynes was insistent she would receive Mr. Bryant's final $25,000 payment, he said.

That day, Ms. Haynes had told her friends, she was going to cash the $25,000 personal check Mr. Bryant had given her the week before, Mr. Craig said. Mr. Bryant's bank records showed that he didn't have that much money in any account, the prosecutor said.

Mr. Bryant couldn't borrow the money because he was in bankruptcy, and he was unsuccessful in trying to get the cash from his retirement account at work, Mr. Craig argued.

Mr. Bryant was the one with the debt, the one who burned down his first home, the one who filed the deed to Ms. Haynes' home and then obtained an extra $30,000 insurance coverage for it, Mr. Craig said.

He also was the only person seen at Ms. Haynes' new mobile home the day she was killed, he said.

It was Mr. Bryant who had firefighting training, who kept fuse wire, Mr. Craig said. He was the one who rigged a delayed ignition device at Ms. Haynes' home after he beat and strangled her, and then set up an alibi for himself - saving movie stubs in an attempt to portray innocence, Mr. Craig said.

Mr. Bryant, who has been held without bond since his arrest Feb. 7, 2001, faces a maximum sentence of life plus 40 years. A sentencing date has not been scheduled.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.

--From the Tuesday, October 29, 2002 printed edition of the Augusta Chronicle



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