A Columbia County jury found Thomas Bradford guilty Friday in the fatal shooting of Raymond Lee.
After about six hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of felony murder, guilty of possession of a gun during commission of a crime, and not guilty of malice murder.
Though Lee's family opted not to speak at the sentencing hearing following the verdict, Lee's wife Karen said a soft "thank you" to some jurors as they left the courtroom.
"He (Lee) always had a smile on his face," Columbia County Water Utility Treatment Operations Manager John Maldonado said as he spoke at the sentencing. "Professionally and personally, Raymond will never be replaced."
Superior Court Judge J. David Roper then sentenced Bradford to life in prison plus five years, a sentence that will require him to serve at least 30 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.
"This was a needless, needless incident," Roper said before imposing the sentence after 11 p.m. Friday.
Bradford was accused of shooting Lee, a Columbia County Water Utility worker, on April 1, 2011, following an argument about overfilled sludge trailers. Bradford, a driver with Hudson's Grassing Co., picked up trailers regularly from the plant.
During closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Geoffrey Fogus called Bradford a "hothead" who pulled out a gun after he and Lee argued.
Victor Hawk, Bradford's lawyer, told jurors that Bradford was acting in self defense from Lee's physical attacks.
"Thomas Bradford was defending himself when the gun accidentally went off," Hawk said to jurors.
Fogus said in his closing arguments that Bradford changed his story since the shooting and that he never mentioned the shooting was an accident or in self defense at the time.
Testimony during the trial noted that the shooting occurred after the two argued over an overloaded sludge trailer Bradford was picking up from the Reed Creek Water Pollution Control Plant. In testimony Thursday, Bradford said Lee provoked the argument by intentionally and repeatedly overfilling trailers, throwing a shovel at him and spitting at him.
Jurors started the day Friday with a site visit to the Stevens Creek Road plant in Martinez where the shooting took place. The visit allowed jurors to see from the vantage point of two witnesses who saw Bradford shoot Lee.
DAY 4 RECAP
The defense in the murder trial of Thomas Bradford rested Thursday, sending the case to a fifth day.
Bradford took the stand in his own defense Thursday afternoon, telling jurors the nuances of his job hauling sludge en route to explaining why he and a Columbia County Water Utility worker got into a fatal argument over it.
Bradford is charged with the April 1, 2011, fatal shooting of Raymond Lee.
Bradford said Lee consistently had been overloading Bradford's trailers for Hudson's Grassing Co. The two had argued about it before, Bradford said, adding that he had gone to Lee's supervisor to complain - and that Lee wasn't happy about it.
On that afternoon, the two of them argued after Bradford, who said the trailer again was overloaded, dumped part of the sewage sludge in the Reed Creek Water Pollution Control Plant's parking lot, angering Lee.
Bradford testified that he was "freaked out" when the argument escalated, claiming he was "chest-bumped" by Lee.
He admitted pulling out his pistol, but said it was only to stop the argument. He contended he never pointed the gun at Lee and that it went off when he pushed away from him.
"My reactions that day were reactions to his assault," Bradford said. "I was motivated by fear that day.
"I never intended to shoot him. ... I did not consciously pull that trigger," Bradford said. "It was a horrible tragedy."
However, prosecutor Geoffrey Fogus, on cross-examination, pointed out that in numerous conversations and interviews after the shooting Bradford never mentioned being threatened by Lee, or claiming the shooting was an accident or in self-defense.
Bradford said he didn't mention those things at the time because he was "confused" and upset, but Fogus insinuated that Bradford had used the time since the shooting to embellish his story.
Fogus followed Bradford's testimony with a string of rebuttal witnesses, including Lee's brother, who denied Lee had any knowledge of martial arts. Bradford had testified that he was afraid of fighting Lee because of his nicknames, "Jet Li" or "Bruce Lee."
Earlier Thursday, the defense began laying out its case by bringing in other workers from the Martinez plant where the shooting took place.
Matthew Gibbs and Joe Kallas, coworkers of Lee, discussed the events of that day and talked about Bradford's complaints with overloaded sludge trailers.
Bradford was at the plant that day to pick up a trailer loaded with sludge, and argued with Lee because the trailer was overloaded.
Also testifying as character witnesses were friends and family members of Bradford, who described him as "laid back."
The prosecution rested its case Wednesday afternoon.
The final part of the prosecution's case was from Bradford himself, as Columbia County Sheriff's Office investigators played a videotaped interview with Bradford in which he claimed he pulled his pistol after an argument with Lee only to stop Lee from attacking him.
Witnesses earlier in the trial described Lee as backing away from Bradford when he was shot once in the chest at close range with a .380 pistol.
DAY 3 RECAP
Testimony in the murder trial of Thomas Eugene Bradford Wednesday afternoon came from Bradford himself, as Columbia County Sheriff's Office investigators showed jurors their taped interview with the man accused of shooting water utility worker Raymond C. Lee on April 1, 2011.
The prosecution rested in the case at the conclusion of the taped interview. The defense is scheduled to begin presenting its case at 9 a.m. Thursday.
In that interview, Bradford described himself as "a hotheaded person," and told investigators he "had gotten into it" before with Lee about how his trailers of sludge had been loaded at the Reed Creek Water Pollution Control Plant.
Bradford, a driver for Hudson's Grassing Co., argued with Lee the day of the shooting because he said his trailer had been overloaded and had a ripped tarp.
He said before the shooting that Lee had slapped him, knocking his prescription sunglasses off, and that he pulled the pistol he was carrying to keep from being hit again - but that he didn't intend to shoot Lee.
"I don't know what I would've done. I just didn't want to get hit anymore," Bradford said in the taped interview. "It just got way too fast out of control."
Bradford also admitted during the interview that the scuffle with Lee could have started when he produced the pistol. Bradford is expected to take the stand in person when the defense presents its case.
Earlier in the afternoon, a medical examiner and a firearms expert from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation testified about the gun used in the workplace shooting and showed the jury photos from Lee's autopsy.
They said Lee died from a single gunshot wound from a .380 pistol that struck him in the chest at close range, penetrating his heart and lungs and causing him to die from internal bleeding.
But before the first prosecution witness could take the stand and prior to jurors returning to court Wednesday, Superior Court Judge David Roper held a hearing to allow prosecutors to question Dr. Jeffrey Andre, whom the defense wanted to bring in as an expert witness in visual perception.
Roper, after the hearing, ruled that Andre would be allowed to testify for the defense.
"Dr. Andre meets the qualifications as an expert witness in this court. ... And he will be permitted to testify," Roper said.
With at least four prosecution witnesses waiting to testify, Roper also allowed Andre to be called first to the stand because of a schedule that would not allow him to stay later in the trial.
After presenting testimony casting doubt on the accuracy of witnesses to the shooting, Andre came under intense questioning from Assistant District Attorney Geoffrey Fogus.
With Andre's testimony complete, the prosecution continued presenting its case by calling the GBI officials. Continued testimony from prosecution witnesses is expected to last throughout the day, and could include a visit Thursday to the Reed Creek plant on Stevens Creek Road in Martinez where the shooting took place.
Roper also Wednesday issued a gag order in the trial, ordering prosecutors, defense attorneys and bailiffs to not to speak to the media until after the trial is over.
The order came after Fogus complained that defense attorney Victor Hawk gave an interview to a television station during a break in the proceedings.
DAY 2 RECAP
Following up on dramatic testimony from Andrew Lasure, another water plant worker who witnessed the shooting - Reed Creek Water Pollution Control plant head operator Richard Haygood - on Tuesday afternoon denied comparing stories with Lasure and changing details to get them to conform.
"I saw what I saw," Haygood said.
What he saw was an altercation between Bradford, a truck driver for Hudson's Grassing Co., and Lee, the assistant manager over the county's wastewater treatment plants.
Bradford was at the plant to pick up a trailer loaded with sludge from the plant, and argued with Lee that it was overloaded and the tarp was torn, Haygood testified.
He became emotional as he recalled seeing the two men struggle, before Lee broke free and Bradford shot him. Haygood said he saw Lee back away, with his hands in front of him before Bradford pointed his pistol and shot Lee once in the chest.
Haygood's testimony was similar to that of Lasure, who said he had been on the job only a week the day of the shooting.
Lasure testified Tuesday morning that he saw Lee and Bradford argue, and then saw Bradford walk to his truck and return with a pistol, which he pointed at Lee. The two briefly struggled over the weapon before Lee let go, Lasure said.
"Raymond took a step back and put his hands in the air," Lasure said. "Bradford fired one shot."
Bradford's defense attorney, Victor Hawk, cross-examined both Haygood and Lasure and contended that the two shared their stories about the shooting and changed details to get them to conform.
Hawk had Lasure read to jurors the statement he gave to investigators on the day of the shooting, and Lasure denied Hawk's contention that, at 137 yards, Lasure was too far away to be a reliable witness.
Earlier in the day, as the case entered Day 2, a packed courtroom greeted the newly seated jury as Superior Court Judge David Roper warned spectators that outbursts would not be tolerated.
Hawk announced that Bradford will testify in his own defense, despite warnings from Roper Monday that Bradford then will be open to cross-examination from Assistant District Attorney Geoffrey Fogus.
"I can assure you, Mr. Bradford is going to testify," Hawk said.
As opening arguments began, the prosecution stipulated that Bradford was licensed for concealed carry of his pistol.
Fogus described Bradford to the jury as a "hothead," and emphatically denied the weapon was used in self-defense.
"It was not self-defense." Fogus said during his opening argument. "It was not an accident. It was anger and having a gun."
Fogus told jurors about a comment Bradford made to the Georgia State Patrol trooper who was first at the scene of the shooting that day.
"This got out of hand," Bradford told the trooper, according to Fogus. "I didn't want this to happen today."
In Hawk's opening statment, he told jurors that Lee brought on the confrontation with Bradford by intentionally overloading Bradford's trailer with sludge from the treatment plant.
Because drivers are responsible for any spills on roadways, Bradford was concerned that the load was too big for him to seal it down with his tarp, Hawk said, sparking the argument with Lee.
"Mr. Lee set up a dangerous confrontation and he was accidentally killed," Hawk said.
As the trial began, jurors first heard a recording of Bradford's 911 call.
"There was an altercation," Bradford told the 911 dispatcher. "It got out of hand."
State Trooper Ben Rollins, the first witness to take the stand for the prosecution, reiterated Bradford's comment, telling jurors that when he arrived he found Bradford kneeling in the water plant's parking lot with his hands in the air.
DAY 1 RECAP
A jury chosen Monday will hear opening statements Tuesday in the case of a Hephzibah man accused of shooting a Columbia County wastewater treatment plant employee last April.
Thomas Eugene Bradford, 43, is accused of fatally shooting 38-year-old Raymond V. Lee, of Grovetown, at a Martinez wastewater treatment plant on April 1.
Prosecutor Geoffrey Fogus asked Superior Court Judge J. David Roper for permission to take the jury to the wastewater treatment plant to show jurors where the shooting occurred and where witnesses saw it from.
"I intend to permit a scene visit," Roper said. Court proceedings were closed Monday, citing security issues, to discuss the details of a potential visit.
Fogus and Bradford's attorney, Victor Hawk, questioned potential jurors for about three hours Monday morning in the Columbia County courthouse in Evans. After returning from lunch, they selected a 12-member jury and two alternates.
Opening statements are expected to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The trial is expected to last four to five days.
Authorities say Bradford, a driver for Thomson-based Hudsons Grassing Co. Inc., and Lee argued at the Reed Creek Water Pollution Control Plant on Stevens Creek Road in Martinez on April 1. Witnesses said during the argument and physical fight between the men, Bradford brandished a pistol and shot Lee.
Bradford called 911 and waited at the scene until he was arrested.
In May, Bradford was indicted for murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. He pled not guilty to those charges in June.
Attorneys also discussed several pre-trial motions, taken up after the jury was excused, including Hawk's intention to present an expert witness specializing in visual perception and factors affecting it.
"The time it takes for sound to travel certain distances and visual acuity at that distance," Hawk explained. Judge Roper said he'd wait to hear the background of the witness before deeming him an expert.
Fogus also opposed Hawk's intention to bring up information about guns at the treatment plant other than Bradford's and Bradford's belief that Lee knew martial arts.
"It is relevant to what he though the was facing when he decided to defend himself," Hawk said.
Hawk insinuated that Bradford would testify in his own defense. Bradford didn't have to make the decision Monday, but was warned that he couldn't invoke his Fifth Amendment right once on the stand and would be subject to Fogus' cross examination.
"It's either all of nothing if you take the stand," Roper said.
Bradford is being held in the Columbia County Detention Center without bond, according to jail records.