Family at peace after murderer's confession
Dolly Hearn was murdered on June 6, 1990, but that fact was never "official" until last Friday when her killer and former boyfriend Barton Corbin confessed in a Gwinnett County courtroom. Dolly's family and friends had never accepted her death as a suicide and some say they knew from the beginning that Corbin was to blame. Now there is no doubt.
Dolly's immediate family - her mother, Barbara Hearn; her father, Washington dentist Dr. Carlton Hearn; and two brothers, Carlton Jr. and Gil - were in the courtroom when the confession was made. During the hearing, Corbin also confessed to murdering his wife, Jennifer, on November 20, 2004. He admitted arranging both murder scenes to look like suicides. The similarities of the cases were uncanny.
Having prepared for several weeks of trial proceedings, the families of both victims were spared that pain and the confessions removed any doubt that might have remained after a jury's decision. Dolly's mother was very happy with the outcome.
"We are finally able to celebrate a little bit," she said. "I know Dolly's rejoicing and glad that we can rejoice a little bit in knowing that nobody, now, can ever say an innocent man was convicted. It's as good an end as there could have been and we had anticipated a long, dreadful trial with untold heartache in going through it."
Word had gotten around town so quickly in Washington that when Dr. Hearn got out of the courtroom and made a few calls, everyone he called had already heard the news. "It was wonderful to feel the support of people here - it overwhelmed us, really," Mrs. Hearn said.
Those who knew Dolly never considered suicide a possibility, especially her family and members of her class and faculty at dental school. It just didn't fit with her personality. But her death was never ruled anything else until last Friday.
"We have felt that there have always been people who weren't really sure," Mrs. Hearn said. "Now they're sure and everybody knows. That's why we are celebrating and we feel that Dolly's name is cleared," she continued. "That's what I said on the first day that she died, that I hope the truth can be known. I knew then as well as I know now what the truth was.
"Nothing could bring Dolly back, whether it was a long trial or whether he was acquitted or convicted, or whether he confessed. But for him to confess is just the best end to this that there could be. That's all," she said.
Leading up to the confession, Mrs. Hearn said that Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig told the family "in great secrecy" on Wednesday, September 13, that a plea had been offered.
Investigators had traced the gun Corbin used to kill his wife to Richard Wilson, a friend in Troy, Alabama, who had remained silent until just a few days before. He then admitted giving the gun to Corbin prior to the murder although he said he had no knowledge that Corbin intended to harm his wife. Placing the known murder weapon in Corbin's possession before Jennifer's death effectively sealed the prosecution's case.
"There wasn't any smoking gun as far as Dolly's case was concerned," Mrs. Hearn said. "I think the thing was that they knew once Richard Wilson had come clean about giving Bart the gun, that sewed up the case. And then, they were able to say to him, 'You're going to be convicted in Gwinnett and that means that Richmond can go for the death penalty.' [Corbin was to be tried first in Gwinnett County for the murder of his wife. Then, in a separate trial, he would face charges for Dolly's murder in Richmond County. Once there is a prior conviction, a second jurisdiction is allowed to seek the death penalty.] I don't know for sure whether they would or not but that laid it open. I think that was the impetus for him to cave in and say, 'I did it.'"
The secrecy was so that word would not get out and possibly spoil the confession or cause Corbin to change his mind. It was still unbelievable to the Hearns. In fact, although they attended the hearing, they were quite fearful that Corbin would not go through with the confession.
Mrs. Hearn recounted how the Gwinnett DA went through a series of questions with Corbin before the judge.
"Then Danny Craig went up and faced him and went through the same litany of questions," she said. "He then described Dolly's case in a nutshell. He asked him, 'Do you confess to the murder of Dolly Hearn and arranging it to appear as a suicide?' and he said, 'Yes.' The judge asked him if he had anything to say to the families and he said, 'No.'"
The judge offered the victims' families an opportunity to speak before the court even though sentencing had already been determined. It was then that Max Barber, Jennifer's father, told Corbin, "God may forgive you, I never will. I just virtually hope you burn in hell."
The Hearns were unprepared to speak but given the few minutes taken by Barber, Carlton Hearn Jr. did take the opportunity.
"Bart Corbin has disgraced his profession and he has stolen from mankind. He deserves no place in society," he said.
"He did us proud," Mrs. Hearn commented. "It was a very emotional time for all of us because we had just heard the confession." And paraphrasing her son's remarks, she recalled, "He said, 'My father is a dentist and he always told me that to be a dentist you have to be a humanitarian. You are a disgrace to the profession of dentistry and you have robbed not only her family of the joy of being with Dolly but the world and the people she would have treated of the love and the caring that she had. You have robbed all of us.' I think he ended by saying, 'Sixteen years of silence, sixteen years of pain.'"
Mrs. Hearn said that she and her family have gotten to know Jennifer's family "pretty well" even though their contact has been limited almost entirely to the times they attended hearings. They first met at Jennifer's funeral in December 2004. Jennifer left her two sons much like Dolly left two brothers so Mrs. Hearn felt a special connection with "the terrible worry they have over those two boys." The Corbins' sons, Dalton and Dillon, are now ages nine and seven. They are in the temporary custody of Jennifer's sister, Heather Tierney, and her husband, who also have two boys of their own.
Since the time of Dolly's death in 1990, the Hearns have not rested in their remembrance of her or in their search for understanding of the facts of the case. Without question, they know the case better than anyone else.
"We have known this without any doubt from the very beginning," Mrs. Hearn said. "I will admit that we didn't hide our heads in the sand. We did everything we could do. We read the autopsy. I went to the school and talked to the Dean of Students. I wanted to know everything I could possibly find out. I wasn't afraid to learn anything anybody knew - I wanted to know it," she said.
She told of efforts by the family's lawyer and his paralegal investigator that uncovered facts and statements not found by the sheriff's department because "they didn't ask the specific questions" and at least one of Corbin's classmates said he only answered questions, he did not offer any further information.
But Mrs. Hearn said she wanted to say that, "They redeemed themselves in our eyes - this time. They really and truly did not investigate that case like they should have and I don't think they make any bones about it. But when they learned in December of 2004 that Jennifer and Dolly had died in a similar manner, they opened this case again and they went after it with a vengeance. In fact they actually indicted him for Dolly's murder before he was indicted for Jennifer's."
Looking back to June of 1990, Mrs. Hearn remembers the horror at finding out about Dolly's death and the things they had to do. Dolly's grandmother and youngest brother had both left on separate cruises just two days earlier. The grandmother was called home but the brother was not able to be contacted. He wasn't told until the family picked him up upon his return.
"We have two sons that we had to consider. And as much as you might want to hide your head in the sand and go nuts, you can't do it because you have to live and make things as normal as you can," she said. "That was my feeling, so strongly, back then when she died. Gil was 18 and I felt like I had to make things as normal for him as I could."
She remembered going back to singing in the First Baptist Church choir before Gil left to attend Georgia Tech as a freshman. "Gil adored Dolly and I was so concerned about him and how he would handle it going off to school.
"And Carlton Jr. has talked about the pain that he has felt every single day," she continued. "He stood in my kitchen and pounded his fists on the counter and he said, 'I told Dolly that the way that guy was doing, she was going to end up in a dumpster.' And so he has felt pain every day. But since Friday, he has been almost giddy knowing it was over."
The Hearns returned home after last Fridays hearing to a community of support and concern. Dolly's grave had been adorned with fresh red roses and a special china rose with scripture attached from an anonymous friend. "The girls" at Dr. Hearn's office had decorated with red roses ("We have always thought that red roses were a symbol of Dolly," Mrs. Hearn said.) and photos. Calls from caring friends and concerned people have overwhelmed them and Mrs. Hearn said, "We're always glad to talk about Dolly. We're just glad people care and that they still want to know."
She was also complimentary of the two DAs. "Both prosecutors, Danny Craig and Danny Porter, have just been marvelous. They were so caring," she said.
Barton Corbin was sentenced to life in prison for the 2004 murder of his wife, Jennifer, and life in prison for the 1990 murder of Dolly Hearn. The sentences will run concurrently, according to a plea deal. He will get credit for time served.
Corbin will be eligible for parole in 14 years under Georgia law. But Gwinnett prosecutor Porter said he probably won't have a realistic chance for parole for 28 years.