Hurricane. Homicide. Fake transcript. Why alleged killer will get new trial 10 years later

It’s unprecedented:

A convicted killer will get a new trial Monday in Columbus because an unlicensed court reporter faking her job filed a flawed transcript from his 2008 trial, and the court now has no record of his conviction it can rely on, 10 years later.

With no transcript of Antonio Jerome Magee’s trial in the fatal 2005 shooting of girlfriend Mary Rodgers, who with Magee and their infant daughter fled to Columbus from Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina, Muscogee Superior Court Judge William Rumer had to grant Magee a new trial.

Rumer could find no precedent for this peculiar circumstance.

In his order granting Magee a new trial, the judge cited a case in which a licensed court reporter died, and another court reporter filled in to finish a transcript, but he could find no instance in which a reporter with no professional certification faked her job before filing a flawed, partial transcript.

Because the state of Georgia cannot produce an accurate, certified transcript of Magee’s trial, as required by law, Rumer ruled Magee was denied due process under the 5th and 14th Amendments.

Though Magee’s new trial is docketed for Monday in Rumer’s Government Center courtroom, attorneys may ask for a delay as they try to round up what witnesses they can find, more than a decade later, or they may negotiate a plea.

If Magee goes to trial, they will delve once more into a long, tragic tale that began with a hurricane — a saga Rumer recounted as he summarized the evidence that led to this unique predicament.

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In this file photo, Superior Court Judge William C. Rumer reads his sentence in a Superior Court case on March 1, 2019. Mike Haskey

The homicide

Hurricane Katrina is hard for some to remember, and impossible for others to forget.

It devastated the Gulf Coast from Aug. 23 through Aug. 31, 2005. The death toll was more than 1,800, the damage estimated at $125 billion.

Thousands were lucky to escape.

According to Rumer’s court order granting Magee a new trial, this is how Mary Rodgers wound up shot three times in a Columbus apartment, where she lay dead on the floor for hours, her baby daughter left on a bed in the next room:

Rodgers, Magee and their 3-month-old baby fled to Columbus with Mary’s father, Herbert Rodgers, because Mary’s sister Tenisha Rodgers was a soldier stationed at Fort Benning. They rented rooms at Columbus’ Main Gate Inn, where Mary and the baby shared a room with Magee, while Mary arranged to get a place at E.J. Knight Apartments on Baker Plaza Drive.

Later Mary and Magee took a trip back home to gather more furnishings. While in Gulfport, Miss., they got into an argument so intense that Magee left and Rodgers called a longtime friend to stay with her overnight.

The friend, Kelly Madden, testified at Magee’s trial. She said she awoke that night to find Mary had jammed dining room chairs under both the front and back door knobs to wedge them against being forced in.

Mary’s sister testified that she drove to Gulfport to bring Mary back to Columbus, and that Mary had decided to break up with Magee.

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Antonio Jerome Magee Muscogee County Sheriff's Office

On the night of Nov. 15, 2005, as the Rodgers family shopped at Walmart and went out to eat, Magee kept calling the father’s cell phone, asking to speak with Mary. When the family got back to the Main Gate Inn around 10:30 p.m., Magee was there, and Mary let him join her and the baby in their room.

The father, who since has died, testified he stayed outside Mary’s room for an hour that night, worried about his daughter. After returning to his room, he heard his daughter’s car crank, around 1:30 or 2 a.m., and saw Magee driving away.

Magee, Mary and the infant went to the apartment on Baker Plaza Drive. Three witnesses who were outside saw Magee rush Mary into the building as he told her she would never leave him again. Some said they were back outside soon after daylight, but did not see Magee again until around noon, when he left in a hurry.

Back at the motel, Mary’s father got a key to her room, found no one inside, and drove with Mary’s sister to the apartment, where the screen door was closed, but the wooden door was ajar.

Calling for his daughter, Herbert Rodgers walked in and found her in a pool of blood, wearing only socks and boxer shorts. In the next room, the infant lay on a bed, in dirty diapers, an old bottle of milk nearby.

Mary, 24, was pronounced dead at 1:40 p.m. Her body had rigor mortis, indicating she’d been dead eight to 10 hours. Next to her was a pistol the sister picked up and set on a counter.

After fleeing to Atlanta in Mary’s car, Magee was captured there by U.S. Marshals on Nov. 23.

The trial

Appointed to the bench in July 2010, Rumer was not the judge who presided at Magee’s 2008 trial. That was Judge Robert Johnston III, who resigned March 15, 2010, and died March 12, 2011.

So Johnston today cannot say why he allowed court reporter Sharon Dilleshaw to transcribe Magee’s trial weeks after her professional certification was suspended, nor why she filed a partial transcript riddled with omissions and errors.

By law, Dilleshaw was not authorized to work a trial, as her certification with the Georgia Board of Court Reporting had been suspended April 1, because she failed to renew it at the beginning of the year.

First certified as a court reporter in 2003, Dilleshaw was supposed to renew her certification every January. Because she took no action in 2008 to correct her April 1 suspension, her certification was revoked Jan. 1, 2009.

Judge Johnston was responsible for ensuring she was certified to serve at Magee’s trial.

The trial began April 22, 2008, after a grand jury indicted Magee on Jan. 2, 2007, for murder, armed robbery and reckless conduct.

The prosecutors were Stacey Jackson and Doug Breault. The defense attorneys were Robert Wadkins Sr. and Nancy Miller.

The family testified to the couple’s breakup. The witnesses testified to seeing Magee at the apartment, berating Mary and leaving in her car.

Mary’s sister said she recognized the gun as Magee’s, because she gave him the money to buy it at a Mississippi pawn shop. A firearms expert linked the gun to three bullets recovered from Mary’s body, one from her chest, two from her head.

On April 25, the jury found Magee guilty of murder and reckless conduct. They found him not guilty of armed robbery for taking Mary’s car.

Johnston sentenced Magee to life in prison, and Magee started serving his time May 20, 2008, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

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This voice writer device is similar to one used by court reporter Sharon Dilleshaw during Antonio Jerome Magee’s murder trial in 2008 in Muscogee County Superior Court. Mike Haskey

Faking it

What no one but Dilleshaw knew during Magee’s three-day trial was that she wasn’t doing her job, and no one would discover this until they needed the transcript for Magee’s appeals.

The trial transcript is the official record that documents the evidence presented and the fairness of the proceeding. Cases can be overturned because of a judge’s remark, an attorney’s mistake, or evidence a jury should not have seen.

When attorneys went looking for Magee’s transcript, what they found was bizarre.

Dilleshaw filed a four-volume transcript on April 29, 2008, only four days after the trial. Then the following May 16, Johnston issued a court order extending Dilleshaw’s time to file a transcript, though she already had filed one. The order had no explanation.

On July 11, 2008, Dilleshaw filed a new, three-volume transcript of Magee’s trial, and the four-volume set disappeared. Although Dilleshaw “certified” the new set as correct, the certification meant nothing because she wasn’t authorized to do that while suspended.

In September 2013, attorneys with the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council, which handles appeals for indigent inmates, took over Magee’s defense, and filed objections to the trial transcript that November.

It was a mess.

Comparing the transcript to backup audiotapes of the trial, a court reporter assigned to correct the record found multiple errors.

Rumer in his new trial order tried to use random sampling to quantify the mistakes, finding an average of 4.6 errors per page, which over 301 pages would total an estimated 1,384.

Recordings of Dilleshaw herself were more troubling.

Dilleshaw was what’s called a “voice writer,” meaning she transcribed trials by repeating what she heard into a funnel-shaped mask that covered her mouth, a microphone recording what she said, to be transcribed afterward.

Her recordings of the Magee trial revealed Dilleshaw said nothing about a third of the time: “Typically, Dilleshaw will begin talking and following the testimony, but she stops and falls off quickly into silence,” Rumer wrote.

“There are many times when Dilleshaw will whisper gibberish into the mask,” he added, concluding she was “faking her job.”

“It was a ruse to make all believe that she was taking it down word for word. She was not.”

Stacey Jackson, who prosecuted Magee as an assistant district attorney before he went into private practice, said he had no idea what Dilleshaw was doing during testimony, because the device hid her mouth.

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Stacey Jackson, a defense attorney, prosecuted Antonio Magee as an assistant district attorney in 2008 before he went into private practice. Magee will have a new trial in 2019. Mike Haskey

“You don’t know what she’s saying into it,” said Jackson, who had never heard of a case being overturned for this peculiar reason. Transcripts have been lost, and they have been found to lack certification, Jackson said: To find one was faked was novel.

Court documents say Dilleshaw’s misrepresenting her certification would have been a misdemeanor, under the law. “She is not a court reporter to this day,” records state. “Her whereabouts are difficult to ascertain.”

The remaining audiotapes of the trial also were unreliable: The witnesses’ microphone wasn’t always working, and remarks the judge made weren’t recorded at all, nor were his bench conferences with attorneys.

“The court finds that the secondary audiotapes are not reliable,” Rumer wrote, adding attorneys involved in the trial can’t reconstruct its details now. “The court finds that there is no other method available to produce a true and accurate record of the Magee trial.”

The new trial

Rumer’s order granting Magee a new trial was issued Jan. 13, 2017. It did not set Magee free, as he’s still charged in Mary Rodgers’ fatal shooting.

On June 6, 2018, Rumer set Magee’s bond at $525,000 on charges of murder and reckless conduct — the counts on which he was convicted in 2008.

The only issue warranting a new trial was the unreliable transcript, he said.

The case now has not only a new judge, but a new prosecutor, Mark Anthony, and new defense attorney, Jennifer Curry.

Retrying a case 14 years after the crime is a challenge, when some witnesses have died or disappeared, and others are asked to refresh faded memories.

“It can be difficult to locate people,” said Anthony. Getting them all to court at the same time also is complicated, he added. And when called to the witness stand, they may not remember what once was clear in their minds.

“You’re asking them to testify to their recollection of events that in this instance were 14 years ago,” he said.

Curry said she and Anthony have discussed a plea deal.

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Jennifer Curry is defense attorney representing Antonio Jerome Magee in his new trial. On April 25, 2008, Magee was convicted of murder and reckless conduct for the 2005 fatal shooting of 24-year-old Mary Rodgers in E.J. Knight Gardens Apartments, 3811 Baker Plaza Drive, in Columbus, Georgia. Then-Superior Court Judge Robert Johnston III sentenced him to life in prison. Mike Haskey

“We do have some issues with witnesses,” she said. “At least two witnesses from the original trial are now deceased, and there are a couple of other witnesses that I’m not sure the state will be able to get here in time, so we’re still looking at that.”

Having so far served 11 years in prison, Magee still faces the same penalty, if convicted: “He is still facing life without parole,” Curry said.

Born Nov. 30, 1978, Magee now is 40 years old, and awaits trial in the Muscogee County Jail.