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April 19--   A Toombs County jury has returned a guilty verdict in a 15-year-old murder case that happened in Swainsboro.

In April, 2002 Emily Pestana-Mason, an English professor at East Georgia College, was murdered in her home.  After deliberating two-and-a-half days, the jury convicted Phillip Scott Kirby, Sr. of Swainsboro for the killing.  The case was tried in Toombs County after a change of venue motion was requested by the defendant and approved by Judge Kathy Palmer.

Kirby had previously met Mrs. Mason when he visited her home to repair a water heater.  He returned a couple of weeks later when authorities believe he cut her throat during a rape attempt.

kirbysentenceKirby (far right) with his attorney Matthew Hube.

District Attorney Hayward Altman says DNA testing was key to solving the crime.

"We had a hair that was located under her leg inside of her pants that only the person standing over her when they committed the act could have placed  there.  In her fight for her life, she had pulled out a hair by the roots and that enabled us to go forward.  The DNA came back to match him.  That basically eliminated her husband who had been arrested earlier as a suspect," the DA said.

The husband, Dr. Walter Mason, also a professor at East Georgia, read a victim's statement to the court and later said, "I'm just glad it's over."

After killing Mrs. Mason, the DA says Kirby committed an armed robbery at a convenience store where he attempted to rape the clerk and later was convicted of another armed robbery for which he got 15 years without parole.

During incarceration a DNA swab was taken from him which matched the hair found on Mrs. Mason's body.  He was arrested for the Mason murder the day he left state prison.

The DA commended the Toombs County jury, "I have great respect for that jury.  The worked extremely hard on a complicated case and arrived at the right results,' he said.

At two p.m. Wednesday, the jury told Judge Palmer it was split 11 to one on a verdict but said it was not "hopelessly" deadlocked.  It returned an hour-and-a-half later with an unanimous guilty verdict.

Jackie Holdier of Vidalia was the jury foreperson, "At times it was very stressful.  I believe the tension level was very high.  It was a difficult decision no one wanted to have to make. I prayed about it a lot and there were several of us who prayed about it.  It wasn't a decision I took lightly because we were making a decision about someone's life," she said.

The jury found Kirby guilty of malice and felony murder and Judge Palmer sentenced him to life in prison.

His lawyer said they will appeal the verdict.