By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
In a verdict that surprised many who had followed the case, a Dade County jury on Thursday acquitted James Oglesby, 28, of all murder charges in the bloody stabbing death of Antwane Hyatte on Sand Mountain in March 2011. The jury found Oglesby not guilty of one count of malice murder and two of felony murder, convicting only on a charge of aggravated assault.
The trial started April 23, and jurors began deliberations after lunch on Thursday, according to the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office, delivering their verdict around 7 p.m.
But as if in compensation for the jury’s leniency, Dade Superior Court Judge Jon “Bo” Wood imposed a stiff sentence for the assault charge: 20 years in prison, 90 percent of which Oglesby must serve before he can be considered for parole.
Oglesby was accused, along with his friend, Johnathan Ellison, then a 19-year-old father of two, of inviting Hyatte to Ellison’s Gass Road mobile home on March 16, 2011, to sell them marijuana and ecstasy pills, then murdering him for the drugs and wad of cash he carried. While Ellison’s infant children slept in a back room, and while Hyatte’s girlfriend waited for him in a car outside, the 35-year-old Chattanooga man died in the doorway of the trailer of so many knife slashes examiners were initially unable to determine if he had sustained bullet wounds as well.
The two young men fled the murder scene on foot, later catching rides to Chattanooga and on to a Whitfield County trailer where, according to taped interviews with Ellison, they drank beer and smoked marijuana and crystallized methamphetamine until police caught up with them the next day.
Ellison went first to trial, also in Dade Superior, and last October a jury found him guilty of both malice murder and felony murder as well as of aggravated assault. Judge Brian House sentenced Ellison to life with the possibility of parole in 30 years.
During the taped interviews shown at his trial, Ellison told Dade and state law enforcement agents that it was the older Oglesby who had initiated the murder. “Basically, his statement, which we felt to be true, was that Mr. Oglesby was the motivating force behind the attack,” said District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin by phone on Monday.
But those statements by Ellison, though admissible at his own trial, would have been mere hearsay at Oglesby’s, said Franklin. “It was an evidentiary problem,” he said. “We knew it would be a tough case going in.”
And though Ellison had accused Oglesby during the initial investigation, he did not take the witness stand against his buddy in last week’s trial. Franklin speculated that this was not so much about sentiment as about securing a peaceful life in prison for the long term. “The primary rule for survival is not to be labeled as a snitch,” he said. “It’s a matter of self-preservation.”
Franklin also said that Oglesby was a seasoned veteran of the criminal justice system, with multiple convictions mainly in Florida, but that it would have been improper to confront the jury with a history of those priors.
He said he was not surprised at the jury’s verdict given the evidence difficulties, and that on the whole he had been pleased to obtain the assault conviction. “The compromise verdict is somewhat a fact of life,” he said. “In a perfect world this wouldn’t have happened at all.”
But a perfect world this isn’t, he said, and instances similar to this are not uncommon. “It’s something that happens,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Len Gregor, interviewed Friday, said prosecutors do not like to criticize juries but admitted he had found it puzzling that jurors had not convicted on the felony murder charges. He explained that felony murder applies when a felony results in a death. In this case, he said, the death was a given and the jury did in fact find Oglesby guilty of a felony, aggravated assault. “They did not convict, however, on the felony murder charge based upon the aggravated assault, and we don’t know why,” he said.
What the jurors were thinking must remain a mystery: The trial did not attract live media coverage and Judge Wood subsequently chose not to release the names of the jurors.