Hancock inmate murder trial

Murder defendants and their attorneys sit at defense tables in Hancock County Superior Court on Tuesday as Thomas O’Donnell gives opening statements to jurors. 

SPARTA, Ga. — Three prison inmates found guilty of malice murder Friday afternoon by a Hancock County jury and later sentenced by a judge to life in prison without the possibility of parole had criminal pasts, records show.

The trio included Demarco Michael Draughn, Benny Hayward, and Xavier Connell Levatte. The inmates were all members of the Blood Gang while incarcerated at Hancock State Prison.

All three men were convicted of the Oct. 11, 2017, murder of 32-year-old Bobby Jermaine “B.J.” Ricks at Hancock State Prison, located not far from downtown Sparta. 

A jury of nine women and three men deliberated for a little more than an hour before they returned guilty verdicts against all three defendants on charges of malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault. The latter two charges were merged into the malice murder conviction as a matter of law, according to Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda H. Trammell, who served as the trial judge. 

Ricks’ murder by Draughn, Hayward and Lavatte is believed to have been because of his homosexual relationship with another inmate. The victim was a member of the same gang as the men who stabbed him to death 11 times while he was taking a shower.

The weapons used in the brutal attack on Ricks were makeshift knives, commonly known in prison circles as shanks.

Video surveillance footage captured by cameras inside Dorm H-1 showed Ricks running for his life while naked. At the time, four other inmates were chasing him — one appeared to be stabbing Ricks when he fell up against what looked like a rack near the sally port.

A fourth man was also seen chasing the victim, who before being murdered was due to be released from prison in 3 1/2 months. Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Stephen A. Bradley and Assistant District Attorney T. Wright Barksdale, who jointly prosecuted Draughn, Hayward and Levatte, contend that Diante Lamont Thompson was that fourth man.

Thompson, also a member of the Blood Gang, and who was indicted by grand jurors on the same charges as the three men tried last week, was scheduled to stand trial with them last week, but his lawyer was unable to attend the trial. Prosecutors decided to go forward and try Draughn, Hayward and Levatte. They plan to try Thompson and another inmate, Patrick Renfroe, at a later time. All five men are believed to have been involved in the murder.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jackie Gittins, who was the on-call case agent in the murder investigation, testified on two different occasions during the trial of Draughn, Hayward and Levatte last week in Hancock County Superior Court. Gittins assisted prosecutors during the entire trial.

In closing his closing arguments to jurors Friday morning, Bradley talked about the fact that Ricks was soon due to be released from prison.

“In about 3 1/2 months, he was going home,” Bradley said. “He had paid his debt to society. He had done his time. And while his family may not have been proud of what he did, if they weren’t pleased with him acting the way that got him in prison, at least they could be proud that he did his time well.”

Near the end of his closing remarks, Bradley told jurors that Ricks eventually went home, but not in the manner anyone expected.

Bradley urged jurors to remember that the state’s first witness, Georgia Department of Corrections Officer Erica Swint Hood, told them that Ricks was a good guy. He wasn’t a problem.

“He had been in Hancock State Prison just a couple of months, and they had already put him on kitchen duty,” Bradley said. “They knew who they had to watch more closely and who they didn’t.”

 His family and friends all called Ricks B.J., the veteran prosecutor said.

“He had been in prison for 13 years; and he knew what to do when the lights went out,” Bradley said. “He went to get a shower right there at the last minute.”

Lockdown was at 11:30 p.m.

“He wasn’t your problem,” Bradley said. “The trouble was is that he was living in an environment where people didn’t care who the problem was. They cared about making sure that they ruled. You see, in the end, there are only two kinds of people. There are people who care about the truth and there are people who care about covering up the truth.”

Bradley said the case consisted of some personal and insightful witnesses.

He talked a little about one of them, Gregory Johnson.

“B.J. Ricks’ roommate was Gregory Johnson,” Bradley said. “But he had only been his roommate for two days. Now, why is that important?”

 Bradley said the fact was important because Ricks relied on the Blood Gang for protection.

“They were his support; he believed they were his friends,” Bradley said.

Ricks entered into a relationship with Johnson, whom the district attorney described as sensitive, very fit and a very strong man.

“I don’t know, but I suspect that you can be very quiet and maybe on the down-low half a homosexual relationship even though that was against the rules of the Blood Gang,” Bradley said. “But you might do it quietly. The problem was these two got involved. And nobody had roommates by accident.”

 Bradley told jurors that they had heard several times during the trial that this person was assigned to a particular cell.

“But everybody kind of picked and chose,” Bradley pointed out. “B.J. Ricks paid the guy (his former roommate) to move out, so he could move in with Gregory Johnson. And when he moved in with Gregory Johnson at that point, the dominos started to fall because it was no longer quiet. This was now a loud and proud relationship.”

Bradley told jurors that one of the first things that happened was an argument between Thompson and Ricks.

“Now, we don’t know exactly what was said, but you can figure it out pretty quick because he had just moved in two days ago,” Bradley said. “He moved in with what Patrick Renfroe told you was an old ‘swole dude.’ And for some of you who might not know, that is a large, fit individual, older than most of these fellows. He was all of those things.”

Bradley also told jurors he wanted them to know that the crime against Ricks was committed by four people — not just three people.

“You can, if you want, to pretend that Diante Thompson is sitting right there,” Bradley said, pointing to where the other three defendants were seated with their defense attorneys. “I’m sorry he’s not, but he’s not. Assume, because all of this evidence goes against not one, not two, but all four of these fellows. And that Diante Thompson … was arguing with B.J. Ricks. But apparently, that didn’t go far enough for these fellows, because the next thing that happens is that B.J. Ricks goes to get a shower. He does it right at lockdown time.”

Bradley said getting a shower in prison has to be one of the most vulnerable times for any human being.

“In fact, they have shower duty,” Bradley said. “You expect that your friends are going to help you out in shower duty and make sure that the other side doesn’t get you.”

 When someone is exposed in a closed environment, the prosecutor asked jurors where are you going to run?

Bradley said he truly believed that Ricks thought members of the Blood Gang were looking out for him.

“But it didn’t turn out that way,” Bradley said. “You see, it’s the small details that make cases that tell you what really happened here. I want you to remember that Mr. Draughn, along with Docwell Carter, are living in 109. Benny Hayward, along with Arriean Jackson, are living in 110, and Mr. Levatte and Patrick Renfroe are living in 115. That is undisputed.”

So, where is B.J. Ricks, Bradley asked.

“He’s now upstairs, 222, causing no problems to anybody,” Bradley said.

The district attorney told jurors to recall how the conversation went the moment that Ricks was killed.

“At that point, there was no question as to why it happened,” Bradley said. “Nobody inside that facility was confused. You don’t have to know what motive is; you don’t have to. Members of the jury, the state can prove motive to you, but we don’t have to because once you find that these four people killed B.J. Ricks, you’ve done your job. We know what the motive was. And Gregory Johnson did, too.”

“He knew he was the next one in line,” Bradley said. “He got out immediately.”

After finding out that Ricks had died from the brutal attack, Bradley said Johnson was inconsolable and hyperventilating.

“This was somebody he cared very deeply about,” Bradley said. “This doesn’t happen by accident. He knew exactly what time it was.”

Defense attorneys contended during closing arguments that there was no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict their clients.

At one point, Lam and O’Donnell sought direct verdicts of acquittal for their clients, but those verbal requests were rejected by Trammell.

Before the judge sentenced Draughn, Hayward and Levatte, Barksdale read aloud the previous felony convictions against them.

Draughn was convicted in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta to felony grade theft by taking, possession of tools to commit a crime on June 26, 2012. He also was found guilty in Cobb County Superior Court for felony grade bribery. He was sentenced July 11, 2015. Draughn also pleaded guilty to rioting in a penal institution on July 11, 2015, in a separate case.

Barksdale said Draughn also was later convicted in Cobb County Superior Court on charges of armed robbery, hijacking of a motor vehicle, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime on July 11, 2015. Draughn pleaded guilty to each of those charges, court records show.

Draughn’s most recent conviction before last week came again on July 11, 2015, when he pleaded guilty to theft by receiving stolen property, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, and felony fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.

Barksdale also presented past convictions against Hayward.

The assistant district attorney said Hayward was convicted in Tattnall County Superior Court on April 15, 2007, for possession of cocaine, and possession of methamphetamine.

Hayward also was convicted in Henry County Superior Court on charges of possession of methamphetamine, cocaine, possession of marijuana, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony on May 8. 2007.

In a separate case in Tattnall County on Dec. 16, 2009, Hayward pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of a law enforcement officer, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and possession of marijuana less than an ounce. 

Then on Oct. 9, 2009, in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta, Hayward pleaded guilty to possession of a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and possession of marijuana less than an ounce,

Hayward was found guilty by a Toombs County jury for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and possession of a Schedule 1 controlled substance with intent to distribute. Barksdale said he was sentenced to two life sentences without parole.

The third defendant, Levatte, meanwhile, had only one previous felony conviction on his record before the malice murder conviction.

He pleaded guilty in Early County Superior Court to aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, Barksdale said. The conviction came on May 27, 2014.

Levatte was sentenced to 25 years in prison on that case.








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