By Nancy Bergeron - firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, May 27, 2022
A 3rd Judicial District Court jury on Friday refused to find Willie Jackson guilty of second-degree murder but convicted him of manslaughter instead.
The verdict came after four hours of deliberation. District Judge Bruce Hampton set Jackson’s sentencing for Aug. 30 but said he wants to meet with lawyers for both sides in hopes of finding an earlier sentencing date.
Jackson, 55, shot and killed James Melton on March 15, 2021, while the two were drinking and listening to rap music at Jackson’s mobile home on Heard Road west of Ruston.
In May of 2021, a grand jury indicted Jackson on a second-degree murder charge. Second-degree murder involves an intentionally killing, while manslaughter is the killing of an individual either in the heat of passion or without the intention of doing so.
Jackson faces up to 40 years in prison on the manslaughter conviction. Had he been found guilty of murder, he would have automatically been imprisoned for life.
Despite the lesser conviction, Jackson’s attorneys said they weren’t pleased.
They said they’ll file for a new trial based on the grounds that Melton’s prior criminal history wasn’t allowed as evidence.
“We think it should have been allowed for the jury to make a better decision,” attorney Claudia Payne said.
Jackson’s attorneys didn’t dispute that their client killed Melton, but they said he did so in self-defense.
Prosecutors were not available late Friday for comment.
Jackson did not testify in his own defense.
The 8-man, 4-woman jury began deliberating shortly after 2 p.m. Friday. An hour later, the jury foreman emerged and handed the bailiff a paper plate upon which jurors had written a note to Hampton asking for another look at photographs of the crime scene.
At 6:10 p.m. — exactly four hours after the jury began deliberating — it reached a verdict.
Friday’s action was marked by a number of brief conferences between Hampton and the attorneys outside the presence of the jury. One involved a juror who realized he coached the sons of a potential witness, while another dealt with a Facebook video of Melton that Jackson’s lawyers wanted to show the jury.
The juror was allowed to stay after telling Hampton he could still be fair and impartial. But the video was not admitted.
“I don’t see anything in this that’s relevant,” Assistant District Attorney Tracy Houck said.
Dwayne Burrell, Jackson’s lead attorney, said he wanted to show the clip of Melton supposedly dancing and flashing gang signs saying he believe it showed how Melton acted when he was drinking.
But nobody knew whether Melton had been drinking when the video was made.
“I agree with the state that one video is not going to prove habit,” Hampton said.
Body slumped on couch, shot four times
Forensic evidence introduced during the trial showed Melton was shot four times, three times in the back and once in his left arm.
Melton’s body was discovered in a sitting but slumped position on a couch in Jackson’s trailer.
Prosecutors called only four witnesses, relying heavily on the testimony of Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Office Investigator Lt. Matt Henderson and on an 80-minute video of an interview Henderson conducted with Jackson the night of the killing.
Houck, in his closing argument, called the case “a clear case of murder.”
He said despite Jackson’s claims otherwise, there was no evidence that Melton was aggressive.
Jackson intended to kill Melton, Houck said.
“Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow,” Houck said, imitating the gunshots. “Three of those bullets were in (Melton’s) back. … He kept pulling the trigger. He’s not trying to stop a threat. That’s an attempt to shoot somebody dead.”
Defense attacks expert testimony
Burrell called only three witnesses, whose combined testimony took less than 30 minutes. He sought to discredit Henderson’s investigation, saying evidence had been left on the scene and is probably still there.
Burrell also criticized testimony given by forensic expert Dr. Frank Peretti, of Little Rock. Peretti’s contention that Melton was either learning forward or pivoting when he was shot, and that’s why a slug was found in the couch, didn’t make sense, Burrell said.
“We know what Dr. Peretti testified to is impossible,” Burrell said.
Peretti, who did the autopsy on Melton, said Melton died of multiple gunshot wounds.
“He bled to death internally,” Peretti said.
Peretti said Melton was probably shot from about two feet away.
He said Melton had a blood alcohol content of .427, and that he may or may not have been functioning, depending on how much he was used to drinking.
Jackson recounts night of killing
In the 80-minute interview on the night of the killing, Jackson can be heard saying he saw Melton outside and invited him to his house to drink and listen to music. The men sat outdoors for a while, but later went inside, still drinking and listening to the music.
Jackson claims in the video he didn’t know Melton. In the audio of the 911 call Jackson made after he shot Melton, Jackson can be heard telling the operator he shot someone lying on the couch at his house but he didn’t know the person’s name.
Jackson told deputies he and Melton had been drinking and that Melton had become aggressive and was coming at him.
Jackson said he thought Melton had a knife earlier, but investigators found no weapons at the scene other than the gun Jackson used. The six-shot .38-caliber pistol was recovered from inside Jackson’s car – exactly where Jackson told investigators he put the gun after the incident.
Jackson was standing near his mailbox with his arms raised when the first deputy arrived at the scene. Investigators say the shooting occurred around 8:30 p.m. Melton’s death certificate shows he died around 9:17 p.m.
During the interview, Jackson told deputies that when, according to him, Melton became aggressive, he was frightened and went to his bedroom to get the gun. He hid the gun in his pants, came back into the living room where Melton was apparently sitting on the couch and sat back down.
Jackson said he got up as Melton supposedly came at him and the gun fell out of his pants. He picked it up and fired.
But Jackson said he could not remember what Melton reportedly was saying to him or what happened to anger Melton. Deputies testified the living room was in disarray.
State debunks self-defense claims
Prosecutors showed the jury photographs of the room with an overturned coffee table and with Melton’s body still on the couch in the upright but slumped position.
They also showed the panel close ups of Melton’s wounds as well as the pistol, bullets and casings recovered both from the scene and from Melton’s body.
In the video interview, Jackson denied shooting Melton in the back. Even after one of the investigators appears to show Jackson a document indicating otherwise, Jackson continues, “I never shot that man in the back.”
Henderson repeats Jackson’s claim Melton was coming at him.
“But there’s nothing there,” Henderson said.
“I got caught in a mistake,” Jackson said at one point.
“What was the mistake?” Henderson asked.
“Offering him (Melton) over for a beer,” Jackson said.
At times, Jackson seemed to be watching the video. As the video neared its end, he wiped his eyes with a tissue. Jackson spent most of Thursday’s full day of testimony looking down at the table behind which he and his lawyers were sitting.
When the verdict was read Friday, Jackson sat motionless. He will remain in the Lincoln Parish Detention Center until he’s sentenced to state prison.