The Georgia Supreme Court's 5-2 decision required a Muscogee County judge to determine if authorities should conduct DNA testing of hair, semen and fingernail scrapings found on Carlton Gary's alleged victims. The testing was not available when he was convicted of the murders in 1986 and sentenced to death.
Gary, 59, was convicted of three of seven slayings between 1977 and 1978 that terrified the west Georgia city of Columbus. He was dubbed the "Stocking Strangler" by the local media because the victims were often brutally beat and raped before they were strangled with their own underwear.
Gary's attorneys had sought to stop his execution so that DNA from the slayings could be tested, but they had been repeatedly rebuffed. Attorney Jack Martin said he was relieved the execution would be postponed until a new hearing was set.
"It would be a sin to execute somebody in a rape-murder case when there's evidence that can determine whether or not he committed the crime," Martin said.
Columbus authorities were disappointed by the delay but hoped it would be short.
"I thought we had a good case and I still do," said Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington, who was the city's police chief at the time of Gary's arrest. "Even though I can respect what happened, I think our case was good, and is good."
Fearful Columbus residents barricaded themselves inside their homes as the spree claimed seven victims who all fit an apparent pattern: They were elderly white woman who lived alone. And then it stopped as suddenly as it started.
The crimes remained unsolved for six years until authorities linked a pistol stolen from a home in the Columbus area in October 1977 to Gary, a charismatic ex-convict who had escaped twice from prison. He was arrested in May 1984 and authorities said he soon confessed to involvement in the rapes and murders.
Gary contended during his trial that another man committed the rapes and murders. And his attorneys noted that tests of blood evidence and hair samples taken from the crime scenes at the time were inconclusive.
Prosecutors, though, showed fingerprint evidence that put Gary at four of the crime scenes, and a surviving victim testified that she recognized Gary when she saw him on television news reports. They also said he confessed to police that he was at the scene of the murders.
Gary had a lengthy rap sheet when he was nabbed. He had spent time behind bars since he was a teenager, and he escaped prisons in upstate New York and South Carolina. But he was also known as a talented musician who never lacked for girlfriends and was handsome enough to model at a local clothing store.
A jury convicted Gary in August 1986 of three counts of malice murder, rape and burglary for the deaths of Florence Scheible, 89; Martha Thurmond, 69; and Kathleen Woodruff, 74. He was sentenced to death on all three counts of murder a day later.
He was later implicated in 2006 to a cold case killing in Syracuse, N.Y., where police say they matched his DNA to evidence left at the scene of 40-year-old Marion Fisher's 1975 rape and strangulation. Authorities there ultimately decided against charging him.
Gary's supporters have contended that their client was convicted in the Georgia murders based on weak evidence.
"In a system susceptible to human error, we are appalled that the state would so blatantly ignore critical evidence in their rush to execute," said James Clark, the coordinator of Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
State and federal appeals courts, however, had until Wednesday dismissed a series of Gary's appeals. And prosecutors have countered that they had ample evidence that pointed to Gary, from his fingerprints to his police confession that he was at the scene of the crime.