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Triple murder defendant wants jail conversations kept from trial

Becky Campbell • Jan 16, 2019 at 10:47 PM

Defense attorneys in a triple slaying case want to keep statements their client made to another inmate — a man they say is an “agent of the state” — from being introduced at the man’s trial later this year.

Derrick Benjamin Sells, 34, was charged in the shooting deaths of Kyanna Howes Vaughn, 23, and Robert Aaron Vaughn, 25. The two were found dead around 7 p.m. Dec. 4, 2017, by a friend who went to check on them. That friend found the Vaughns dead inside their mobile home on Friendship Court, and two young children left to fend for themselves.

Kyanna Vaughn was seven months pregnant when she was killed, according to investigators.

A day-long motions hearing on Wednesday addressed part of the suppression issue, but attorneys didn’t have time to put on all their witnesses. The hearing will continue next month.

Charges

The indictment charged Sells with:

• three counts of first-degree murder;

• three counts of felony murder (murder in the commission of a felony);

• unlawful possession of a weapon;

• one count of especially aggravated robbery; and

• two counts of aggravated child abuse/neglect.

Defense attorneys Steve Finney and Scott Shults filed a motion earlier this month asking Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice to throw out any statements Sells may have made to any of several inmates who were assigned to “babysit” him after a suicide attempt shortly after his arrest in December 2017.

Discussion in the defense motion, as well as comments in court Wednesday, particularly focused on one of those inmates, Jason Greer.

According to the motion, Greer gave a statement to Washington County Sheriff’s Investigator Herman Hagie, which “indicates that he began babysitting on 1/3/18 and alleges that during this time Mr. Sells gave him details about the alleged crime.”

The defense argued that Greer was an “agent of the state,” because not only has he provided alleged information in Sells’ case, but he has also provided, or attempted to provide, information in two other active murder cases. One involves the Rebekah Thompson killing on John Exum Parkway, in which four men are charged in her slaying.

Two Johnson City police investigators testified that Greer told them he believed an inmate in jail with him during that investigation could have had something to do with Thompson’s death because of the way he acted any time there was a news story about it. That inmate, Isiaha Milligan, was one of the four men ultimately charged in Thompson’s death.

Greer waited until he was out of jail to talk to investigators about Milligan because he was afraid for his own safety, according to testimony on Wednesday.

The other case was not disclosed, but could be next month when the hearing continues. Rice adjourned court at  7:30 p.m. Wednesday after a day full of testimony on the motion to suppress.

Part of the motion also states that Sells was subjected to tortuous actions by being placed on suicide watch from the beginning of his arrest. When an inmate is placed on suicide watch, they are stripped of all clothing so they don’t have access to anything they could use to kill themselves. They are given a paper smock and a blanket and checked on every 15 minutes.

After finally being put into a cell block on Dec. 27, Sells did ultimately try to kill himself by slitting his throat with a razor blade on Jan. 3, 2018. He was rushed to Johnson City Medical Center for treatment after being found in a puddle of blood. Physicians saved his life, which included giving him two units of blood. The treating physician wrote an order to admit Sells for at least two days, but after he was treated and stabilized, law enforcement took him back to jail and back to suicide watch.

Sells was also assigned sitters — inmates who had earned some level of trust in the jail and chosen specifically for the duty — to ensure he didn’t harm himself again. According to the motion, the sitters were allowed to have their clothing, a mattress to sit on, books and magazines to read, commissary items and brewed coffee. Sells was not allowed any of those luxuries, according to the motion.

Testimony and statements from attorneys throughout the hearing often referred to Greer as the person who claimed to have information Sells told him about the killings. At one point in the hearing, Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle asked Rice to prevent the media from disclosing Greer’s name because it could endanger his safety.

Initially, Rice did just that. She ordered a Johnson City Press reporter to not disclose Greer’s name at risk of being held in contempt of court. Later in the hearing, however, Rice reversed that ruling and cited a Tennessee Supreme Court decision that once information was released in a public hearing, it was public record and the media could not be ordered to omit it from any reports.

Greer is expected to testify in the motion hearing, which was adjourned until Feb. 11.

The defense also has a motion to suppress data retrieved from Sells’ phone during the investigation. Sells remains jailed on a $1 million bond while his case is pending. 

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