LEE COUNTY, Ala. (WRBL) A convicted killer sentenced to die for kidnapping and murdering Auburn University freshman Lauren Burk, a decade ago, is asking for a new trial under a Rule 32 petition.
Courtney Lockhart’s defense team is arguing his trial attorneys were ineffective at his 2010 trial. At Monday’s hearing his attorneys told Judge Jacob Walker, who presided over the original trial, Lockhart did kill Lauren Burk, he does deserve to be punished, but he does not deserve to die for the crimes.
Monday, Lockhart walked back inside the same Lee County Courtroom where 8 years ago a jury declared him guilty and a judge sentenced him to death for murdering Lauren Burk. In 2008 Lauren was found naked near Farmville Baptist church, gasping for air after Lockhart kidnapped her from Auburn University’s campus, forced her to strip, then shot her as she jumped from a moving vehicle.
Burk’s family drove up from Atlanta for the hearing, dedicated to continuing justice for their slain daughter.
“It’s very heavy and very tough. I am glad I have my family and friends to support me that is keeping it bearable,” said Lauren’s father, Jim Burk.
Lockhart’s defense team is arguing he deserves a new trial and sentencing, claiming his trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to present critical evidence and expert testimony during the trial and sentencing phase regarding Lockhart’s combat service in Iraq and PTSD. The defense claims they have discovered a handwritten depression/PTSD diagnosis from a physician with medication instructions. They claim this information could have been found by his original legal team and was not.
Lockhart’s Staff Sergeant in Iraq was the first to testify for the defense. Jeffery Anderson is retired now and remembers Lockhart as a soldier who did what he was told, liked to joke around and saw the horrors of war while stationed in Iraq where Anderson used him as a gunner.
“We could lose 3 to 4 people in a week, because of enemy fire on the FOB. It was 12 hours on and 12 hours on. I mean you spent 12 hours on actual shift and 12 hours on trying to survive to get to your next shift,” said Anderson.
However, when Anderson was cross-examined by prosecutors with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, he reluctantly admitted even though Anderson was diagnosed PTSD and witnessed the same war horrors; Anderson never abducted an 18-year-old girl and killed her as Lockhart did.
Prosecutors also pointed out Lockhart’s trial team overcame a considerable burden including Lockhart’s own confession to the deadly shooting and overwhelming forensic evidence during the sentencing phase of his trial. The jury did convict, but they also unanimously voted for life in prison not the death penalty.
“It is a standard in state and federal court if you get a jury to recommend life in prison without the death penalty then that is a sign of effective counsel, and there was effective counsel in this case, ” said AG prosecutor William Dill.
Judge Walker used judicial override and sentenced Lockhart to death based on Lockhart’s allegedly committing multiple robberies and an attempted kidnapping before and after Lauren’s murder. This was information the jury did not hear about during sentencing. Judge Walker reasoned if they had, they might have voted for the death penalty.
Burks family remains resolute. They want Lockhart to die for what he did to Lauren and feel the same fear she did the moments before she was killed.
“I hope the judge will uphold his original position that would overturn the 12 jury vote of life and sentence him to the death penalty, I hope he maintains that,” said Jim Burk.
The hearing could last multiple days, and we do not know a timetable for when Judge Walker will issue his ruling. Meanwhile, Lockhart’s trial attorney did testify Monday. Jeremy Armstrong tells News 3 he did provide competent legal representation at trial. Armstrong believes the judicial override death penalty is the issue to focus on and could take this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal.