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. — Jurors in the murder trial of three prison gang members accused in the stabbing death of another inmate at a state prison near Sparta nearly two years ago, watched video surveillance footage of the victim being chased around his dorm by other inmates after he was stabbed while taking a shower.

Bobby Jermaine Ricks, 32, died from his injuries at The Medical Center Navicent Health in Macon after being flown there by a medical helicopter.

The murder took place about 11:15 p.m. in Dorm H-1 of the Hancock State Prison on Oct. 11, 2017.

The video footage was shown to jurors Tuesday morning, the first day of the murder trial of three defendants, all of whom are currently serving prison sentences for other previous convictions. 

The three defendants are Demarco Michael Draughn, Benny Hayward and Xavier Connell Lavatte.

The trio were described as members of the Blood Gang that operates at the state prison near Sparta, as well as other prisons across Georgia. The victim also was a member of the same gang, a court official said.

The three defendants sat together at defense tables with their attorneys while clad in the same type of clothing on the first full day of testimony in their joint trial. They wore beige colored slacks, white shirts and black tennis shoes.

Courthouse security, meanwhile, was tighter than usual with a heavy presence of deputies from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, as well as officers with the Georgia Department of Corrections Interdiction Response Team.  

A fourth defendant, identified by court officials and records as Diante Lamont Thompson, will be tried by separately at a later date.

The three men on trial this week in Hancock County Superior Court are being represented by defense attorneys, Greenberry Moore III, of Gray; Tim Lamb, of Monticello; and Thomas O’Donnell, of Milledgeville. Moore is representing Draughn, while Lamb is representing Hayward, and O’Donnell is representing Lavatte.

Ocmulgee udicial Circuit District Attorney Stephen A. Bradley and Assistant District Attorney T. Wright Barksdale, meanwhile, are jointly sharing in the responsibility of prosecuting the case.

The trial is being presided over by Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda H. Trammell.

Before the trial began, and shortly after jurors took another oath, Trammell told them that they must be finders of fact in the case.

“You must decide this case solely by the evidence presented in this courtroom,” Trammel said. “That means that during the trial you must not conduct any independent research about this case, the matters in this case or the individuals involved in this case. In other words, you should not consult dictionaries or reference materials, search the internet, website, blogs or use any electronic tools to obtain information about this case or to help you decide this case. Please do not try to find out any information from any source outside the confines of this courtroom, which would include media of any sort or online research.”

The judge also instructed jurors not to discuss the case among themselves or with anyone else. She told them they could discuss the case among themselves once testimony and evidence had concluded and they had begin their deliberations.

The state’s first witness was Erica Swint Hood, a corrections officer assigned to Dorm H-1 on Oct. 11, 2017. The dorm is where the crime took place.

Hood said she knew the victim and that he had been recently been assigned to kitchen duties and that she had given him some advice just shortly before he was killed.

“He was one of the people that was on my kitchen detail also,” Hood said.

Sometimes she said she would go to his cell and get him up at 2 a.m. so he could begin prepping food in the kitchen.

Under questioning from Barksdale, Hood said she was responsible for ensuring that inmates stay as safe as possible and that everything is functioning in an orderly fashion.

She was the only corrections officer working in that particular dorm that night.

The dorm consists of 24 rooms or cells on the top and the same number on the bottom floor.

The dorm also has a sallyport area.

“Did you see Bobby before he was murdered,” Barksdale asked.

Hood replied she did.

“He had asked me about a girlfriend he had, talking about she had another guy, but she always made sure he had money on his books and the phone was always on when he called home,” Hood recalled. “He asked me what I thought about her having another guy, and I said long as you make sure you’re straight, you shouldn’t worry about what she has going on.”

Hood said Ricks thanked her for the advice she had given him.

Shortly before, Hood said he had told her that he was going to take a shower.

Barksdale later asked Hood how many people she remembered seeing involved in the attack on Ricks.

“It was about four of them,” Hood said, noting it was fast and lasted only three to four minutes.

The assistant district attorney asked her what was going through her mind at the time of the attack.

“I said, I’ve got to get myself out of here,” Hood said.

Barksdale asked her if she tried to help Ricks.

“Well, when I got the sallyport opened, he was able to run right behind me and out the door,” Hood said.

She later received a blanket from an inmate to cover Ricks, who was naked at the time and bleeding profusely. 

The first words out of Barksdale’s mouth during opening statements was to make sure that jurors knew the victim.

“This is Bobby Jermaine Ricks,” Barksdale said, pointing to a photo of the victim on a large flatscreen projector in the courtroom. “He was 32 years old and he was a Blood Gang member. And he was being housed at Hancock State Prison.”

Barksdale said on the night of the murder, Ricks was settling down in his dorm, H-1.

“He was in line to take a shower,” Barksdale said. “Little did he know that while he was taking a shower he was being watched. Little did he know that within moments he was going to be in for the fight of his life - one that he would lose by the hands of the defendants sitting at that table.”

Barksdale told jurors that Ricks was brutally murdered by people he thought were his friends, his own gang.

“He was stalked,” Barksdale said. “He was ambushed. He was chased down like an animal, and he was stabbed 11 times. Bobby found himself slipping in his own blood as he attempted to escape his attackers. Ultimately, his injuries were too great. Bobby died at the hands of the defendants, unmercifully.”

The assistant district attorney said the story of the murder would be told to jurors by numerous state witnesses, including state corrections officers, other law enforcement officers, and from inmates that witnessed the crime take place.

Barksdale said the majority of the inmates that testify during the trial would be hesitant, reluctant, and perhaps even difficult.

“When you’re hearing their testimony, ask yourself - why,” Barksdale said. “Why are they acting that way?”

The story of Ricks’ death is not if Bobby was killed on Oct. 11, 2017, in Hancock State Prison, but who killed him, the assistant district attorney said.

“And that story and that evidence is going to be presented to you by live video surveillance,” Barksdale said. “You will see Bobby Ricks being murdered, brutally murdered on camera. You will hear from the people that were there. And you will see and hear testimony about the physical evidence linking these defendants to the crime.”

After he made his opening statements, each one of the defense attorneys told jurors what they thought about the case.

“I’m not sure really where to start,” Moore said. “Mr. Barksdale’s identification is not evidence. Those photos were not evidence. Now they may or may not get to be evidence, but they are not evidence now. And Mr. Barksdale is not going to be the one to decide who is in the pictures. You’re going to decide who is in the pictures. You’re going to decide whether you can identify someone or not when you watch these videos. They are not evidence for you to consider at this point and time.”

Moore characterized Barksdale’s job as easy because he has such an array of resources at his disposal to help him get ready.

“He’s got a countless number of prison officials, countless number of (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) GBI agents, countless number of state department of corrections folks, and county personnel,” Moore said. “He has all of that to help put this investigation together to pursue this case. So when he got all of that collected, it’s easy - make no mistake, because he knows what it’s going to say, who he is going to call as a witness. He knows ... pretty much what these witnesses are going to say. So, that’s no hard job to do that part.”

For defense attorneys, it’s a different story, Moore pointed out.

“Defense lawyers get kind of hesitant to come up here and make much of an opening statement about the evidence, because number one, we don’t know exactly what it’s going to say. We have an open door policy in this circuit - most definitely - no question. We have access to most everything.”

Moore noted that he was going to be “very hesitant” to say anything about what he thinks the evidence will show.

Moore said Barksdale didn’t mention to them that there are four people’s DNA on one of the shanks - the makeshift weapon used to kill Ricks.

“It’s just as likely one of those other three handled that shank as Mr. Draughn,” Moore said. “But the problem is we don’t know who those others are because the state, I submit the evidence is going to show, took DNA samples from five other individuals, and they stopped there.”

He noted if he was wrong that the evidence would reveal such.

Lamb also spoke to jurors before testimony was presented.

He said it was clear in Barksdale’s opening statements that the state was seeking a conviction against Hayward for simply being there.

“If you indeed find that he was there, they’re considering that to be evidence and guilt of murder, murder and aggravated assault,” Lamb said. “That’s the most serious crimes you can commit.”

Lamb also talked about guilt by association.

“There was a tiny drop of blood on his pants cuff,” Lamb said. “He must have killed somebody.”

Lamb said he didn’t want to try his case before them now.

He told jurors after they hear the testimony and evidence in the case that he believes they will find reasonable doubt and return a not guilty verdict against his client.

O’Donnell also addressed members of the jury.

“What I want you to do in this trial is listen,” O’Donnell said. “I want you to watch the video.”

He added that he wanted them to see more 90 other people in the dorm where the murder took place.

O’Donnell said he wanted jurors also to pay close attention to what was going on past 11 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2017.

“Listen to what the witnesses say to you,” O’Donnell said, saying he also wanted them to listen to the evidence.

He said jurors should follow the evidence and follow what they saw, and who was there.

O’Donnell added that when they do those things, he believes they will return a verdict of not guilty against Levatte.

The trial resumes today at 9 a.m.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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