Hamilton, a former magistrate judge, and his lawyers expected to appeal a life sentence.
Instead, retiring Senior Judge David Motes opened a rare door for them last week, overturning the murder conviction and sending Hamilton home on bond, with an ankle monitor and a chance for a new trial.
It was a decision the judge himself admits he has never made in more than two decades on the bench, but it's a concept that is legal.
"Frankly, my honest opinion is, it's an abuse of what I would say is power. That's an opinion. That's strong words, but you know, it's not something you ever see," Barrow County Sheriff Jud Smith said. "No one won here in this situation. Not a single person won and now we're having to sit back and fill the pieces of what do we do next?"
When Hamilton was accused of the murder, the state argued the intent was clear, but on the day of sentencing, a transcript shows Motes that noting he had lost sleep over the conviction, felt he'd made several errors during the trial and questioned witness credibility.
"And I have never done this in 22 1/2 years, but the court believes that it's sitting as the 13th juror in this case," Motes said. "I cannot end my career with what I believe to be an injustice."
WSB-TV spoke with Lay's mother by phone Tuesday.
"I just about lost it. Everybody I tell is, like, 'Lisa, you're making that up. Nobody walks out of jail after they're convicted of murder,'" she said.
Motes retires Wednesday. He'd already left the courthouse by the time WSB-TV contacted him for comment.
"I chalk it up to wanting to leave a legacy for doing the right thing even if it wasn't the popular thing," legal analyst Esther Panitch said. "Judges get it wrong sometimes. The ones who take it very seriously will admit when they're wrong and will do so before the Court of Appeals forces them to."
The state has already appealed the retrial and the defense said, "Justice will be served." Prosecutors said they have a policy not to comment on judges' decisions.