Friends and family react after the Facebook trial in Jonesborough Friday. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
A Washington County jury found Marvin Enoch “Buddy” Potter Jr. guilty Friday of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Billy Payne, 36 and Billie Jean Hayworth. 23.
Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood sentenced Potter to two life sentences. He said the life sentences are in compliance with state law and it will be determined whether they will run consecutively or concurrently during a hearing in Mountain City on Oct. 29.
Payne and Hayworth were murdered at their residence at 128 James Davis Lane in Mountain City on Jan. 31, 2012. Both were shot in the head and Payne had his throat cut. Hayworth was shot while holding her 6-month-old son. The baby was uninjured but left in its dead mother’s arms.
Potter is one of four people charged with first-degree murder in the shootings, which police say were caused by Hayworth and Payne “unfriending” Potter’s daughter, Janelle, on Facebook.
Potter’s wife, Barbara; Janelle; and family friend Jamie Curd are facing upcoming trials. The Oct. 29 hearing will also determine whether the three will be tried together or separately.
Johnson County Sheriff Mike Reece said he appreciated the jury’s verdict. “It’s been a long week, but I thought we had a good jury and they did good job.”
He also thanked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and his department’s officers for all the hard work they have done on the case.
“But we are not done yet,” Reece said. “We still have three more to go.” Reece also thanked the district attorney general’s office for its work.
Prosecutors Dennis Brooks and Matthew Roark said it was a difficult case to try because it dealt with a lot of Internet evidence, such as emails and Facebook pages.
“It was a very difficult case to deal with because of evidentiary issues,” Brooks said.
“There just hasn’t been a lot of cases, a lot of precedents,” Roark said.
The evidence included shredded emails found in a garbage bag in Payne’s truck bed. The TBI spent a month piecing the documents back together. The documents contained many threats and hate-filled rants directed toward Payne and Hayworth, some of their friends and “that damn baby.” The messages included comments such as “kill, kill, kill.” Brooks said the shredded emails provided the motive for the killings.
Defense attorneys Randy Fallin, David Robbins and Trent Davis had argued the emails could not be linked to Potter, and in opening statements they told the jury that Potter did not even know how to use a computer. They also said there was no way to know if a Facebook entry was legitimate or a forgery.
In closing statements, Robbins told the jury that the state did not have any evidence connecting Potter to the murder scene.
“There was no murder weapon (found). ... No blood, no fingerprints, no footprints. We have a blank sheet of paper.”
Brooks responded by telling the jury that while the state did not have the smoking gun, “we have the smoking bullets.”
He was referring to five .38-caliber bullets found in the console of Potter’s pickup truck. He said after-market tool marks found on the bullets were similar to the markings on the two bullets that went through Payne and Hayworth’s heads.
The markings found in the truck included a cross mark on the tip of the bullets, which TBI firearms identification expert Steve Scott said was a “poor man’s hollow point.” Scott said in his 27 years of working as a TBI weapons expert, he had “never seen markings exactly like that.”
The other evidence the state presented was a confession Potter made in a telephone call to his wife after a three-hour interrogation by TBI Special Agent Scott Lott after Potter’s arrest Feb. 7, 2012.
In the recorded telephone conversation made at the interview room in the sheriff’s department, Potter is heard telling his wife “before you find out from somebody else, I was involved in it. I did it ... at least part of it.”
Robbins attacked the confession during the defense’s closing arguments. Earlier, the only defense expert witness, Thomas E. Schacht, a professor of psychology at East Tennessee State University and a forensic psychologist, testified about Potter’s medical records.
Schacht said Potter’s file at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home is 700 pages and discusses 19 problems with his health. These include low levels of oxygen in his blood, which could effect his judgment and cause emotional changes. He said the patient is often not aware he is suffering from the symptoms of low oxygen levels.
Potter was using an oxygen tank whenever he needed to bring his oxygen level up, but it was not needed on a full-time basis. When he was being interrogated, he did not have his oxygen with him, Robbins said.
Schacht said Potter was also prescribed heavy doses of morphine because of the pain from several problems, including a 70-foot fall he had survived.
A previous recorded telephone conversation in which Curd asked Potter if he had gotten rid of the evidence from Bill’s was also flawed, Robbins said, because Potter did not have his hearing aids on at the time and may have misunderstood Curd’s question.
Potter was transported to the Johnson County Jail immediately following his conviction.