Some state evidence denied in triple homicide case

Becky Campbell • Apr 30, 2019 at 11:22 PM

A former Washington County jail inmate who took “copious notes” each time he was a sitter for another inmate on suicide watch will not be able to testify at the man’s trial on multiple homicide charges, a judge ruled in a written order.

Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice also called out the Washington County sheriff’s investigators in the case. She said it was “inexcusable” that they failed to obtain a statement from all six inmates who acted as sitters for Derrick Benjamin Sells, particularly one who had been released from jail seven months after investigators knew about the sitters.

Rice filed her ruling late last week regarding Jason Greer and Michael Justin Hill’s involvement in Sells’ case. Greer’s specifically reporting to authorities anything Sells said made him an “agent of the state.” Therefore, any information provided by Greer was inadmissible at trial later this year.

Sells, of Fall Branch, was was arrested Dec. 18, 2017, after a special grand jury returned a 10-count indictment that charged him in the shooting deaths of Kyanna Howes Vaughn, 23, and Robert Aaron Vaughn, 25. The two were found dead inside their mobile home on Friendship Court around 7 p.m. Dec. 4 by a friend who went to check on them.

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

Investigators said the child neglect charges stemmed from Sells leaving the Vaughns’ two young children alone after the slayings.

After his arrest, Sells was placed on suicide watch at the Washington County Detention Center on Dec. 17, 2017, and remained at that status until an evaluation by a mental health care professional on Dec. 27.

Six days later, on Jan. 2, 2018, Sells attempted suicide by slicing his throat with the blade from a disposable razor. He was transported to the Johnson City Medical Center, where he did not receive any mental health treatment, and returned to jail two days later, where he was again placed on suicide watch.

Greer was one of the first inmates asked to work as a “sitter” for Sells to keep him from attempting any further harm to himself. He was also the only inmate who took notes during the 121 hours he was in the cell with Sells. Greer took a Bible with him and pretended to be writing letters when he was actually writing down everything Sells said.

According to testimony at one of three motion hearing days, Greer said he gave his notes to a jail supervisor, who apparently then gave that information to Washington County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Herman Hagie, who was the lead investigator on the case.

Hagie interviewed Greer, who told the investigator “he took copious notes detailing the conversations with (Sells) during the sitting details,” and gave those notes to a jail lieutenant. In one of the statements Greer revealed from Sells, he quoted Sells as saying “the lady (Kyanna Howes Vaughn) was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Sells’ defense attorneys, Steve Finney and Scott Shults, argued Greer was nothing more than a snitch and acted on behalf of the state. Rice agreed Greer acted on behalf of the state and granted the defense motion to keep the evidence out.

As it turned out, Greer was known to law enforcement as someone willing, and apparently eager, according to one Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent, to obtain information from inmates about their cases and share it with investigators.

Prior to his sitting assignment with Sells, Greer had provided Johnson City police investigators with information in the slaying of a pregnant woman and also provided information to the TBI about a homicide that happened inside the Jonesborough jail.

In a separate order, Rice addressed an issue that came up at the Feb. 11 motion hearing in which the state had provided the defense with information about Hill, another inmate who was one of Sells’ sitters, they had located and intended to use at trial.

Prosecutors said Hill absconded from probation after his release from jail Sept. 22, 2018. TBI Agent Scott Lott located Hill in the Unicoi County jail on Feb. 19, 2019, and immediately arranged an interview.

When prosecutors attempted to provide the information to Sells’ defense attorneys, they refused to accept it based on a deadline Rice imposed for such evidence to be provided.

Rice granted the defense motion to exclude the evidence, and in her ruling stated, “namely the officers and investigators of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department knew, or should have known by the exercise of due diligence,” Hill had been one of Sells’ sitters.

She also pointed out that the primary investigator, Herman Hagie, knew there were six inmates used as sitters and had the list of names provided by the detention center.

“The state knew or should have known that Hill was a potential witness in mid to late January 2018 and had complete and total control over this witness for seven months thereafter,” Rice said in her motion. “The state, through the investigators or officers at the WCSD, made no effort during this period to interview or obtain any statement from Mr. Hill.”

She went on to say this in the ruling:

“The court acknowledges that prohibiting introduction of evidence is a drastic and harsh remedy and one that should only be used in the most egregious of circumstances. The court finds that this case merits such a sanction. With full knowledge of the circumstances of the defendant’s confinement in early January 2018, knowing inmates were placed with defendant for hours at a time, in an isolated fashion, that another inmate had retrieved alleged statements from the defendant under the same circumstances and that five other inmates were completely accessible by a short walk to the jail, the failure of the WCSD investigators/officers to timely obtain this evidence is inexcusable.

“And the court finds that the case is scheduled for trial, motion deadlines have been established and the defense would be prejudiced by permitting the state to introduce this evidence after its agents had ample time to obtain it and the state (had) represented discovery was complete.

“Therefore, the state is prohibited from introducing at the trial of (Sells), any statements and/or testimony of Michael Justin Hill.”

Rice denied a defense motion to keep out cell phone data extracted from Sells’ phone. It will come in as evidence in the trial.

Sells remains jailed on a $1 million bond. His trial is scheduled for December

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