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Judicial system in review: Marshall courts saw throng of good, bad activity in 2016

By Robin Y. Richardson
Dec. 29, 2016 at 4 a.m.

Levi Williams, 4, is tickled pink at his adoption ceremony in November as 71st District Judge Brad Morin allows him to share his bench.

Editor's note: This is part of a series reviewing 2016 in East Texas.

Life sentences, million dollar verdicts, extraditions, special adoptions and international visits were a few of the many highlights in the local judicial system for 2016.

Life sentences

Following a short deliberation in May, a Harrison County jury sentenced 21-year-old Javonte Damone Sanders, of Marshall, to 99 years in prison for the murder of Wiley College student Wesley Bell Blackmon, and 20 years for the aggravated assault of two others at a Sept. 13, 2014, house party.

The first day of trial didn't go off without a hitch, however. It kicked off a bit rocky with a lack of cooperation from four of the state's key witnesses. One witness and alleged victim was held in contempt of court for staying in the courtroom during testimony after being admonished to leave. Harrison County District Attorney Coke Solomon ended up having to issue a writ of attachment for three other key witnesses, who were subpoenaed to appear to testify, but were no-shows.

The DA said it was the first times in his 13 years of practicing law to have key witnesses disobey a subpoena by failing to appear in court, as directed.

Justice in Blackmon's death came right on time, however, for the victim's family as his killer's sentencing date marked Blackmon's daughter and namesake, Wes Imani Blackmon's first birthday.

"Imani means 'faith,' and today, Imani turns 1 year old," Blackmon's mother, Sandra Bell, said, following the verdict. "So, it's really a special day. This is a day she) could look back on (and know) justice was served on her birthday."

Even more special, Blackmon's daughter stood in for her father at Wiley's graduation ceremony, which was ironically the day after, receiving a certificate of attendance from the college in his honor. He had only been a student at the college for 22 days before he was killed. He was a member of the basketball team, but due to his death, never got the chance to play his first game.

Witnesses in the case said the shooting was over a $5 to $100 debt said to be owed in a dice game between the two. Prosecutors asked jurors to give Sanders the maximum, representative of the $100 bill he took the victim's life for.

"Put down what you feel is justice … for something that's stupid and senseless as a dice game," Assistant District Attorney Kristin Kaye asked the jury. "He shot him in the face for $100."

"This man decides to carry a gun, carry it into an (unsanctioned) Wiley school party and blow a man's head off over five bucks or 100 bucks," Solomon said, pointing out the money dispute is the exact same as the range of punishment for murder - five to 99 years or life in prison.

In another case, after several trial delays, Deterryon Tyrell Kelly, 29, was found guilty in October of the capital murder of his then-girlfriend's toddler son.

A Harrison County jury took nearly two hours to deliberate on the verdict, which comes with an automatic life sentence with no eligibility of parole.

Kelly was accused of killing 21-month-old Ja'Keen Naevon Sanders, his former girlfriend's son, while the three lodged at Best Western Inn in Marshall on May 5, 2014.

The toddler was found unresponsive at the Best Western on May 6, and later died at Good Shepherd Medical Center-Marshall. Kelly, who was the boyfriend of the victim's mother at the time, was arrested nearly a month later following the results of the autopsy and further investigation.

Kelly contended the boy had become stuck between a bed and a night stand. Testimony revealed a surveillance video from the hotel appears to show him striking the child the night before he was found dead.

The trial was initially set in March, but was postponed the day of jury selection after the defense attorney in the case showed up with his own counsel, informing that he was not competent to proceed with trial due to medical reasons and therefore needed to withdraw from the case.

Solomon, the DA, said the circumstances, having a case delayed due to a defense attorney being incompetent as opposed to a defendant, was mostly likely a first for the court. Sanders' and Kelly's cases are among a dozen or so murder cases that made the court's docket for 2016.

The case of Jerold Lynn Gaut, accused of killing Anthony "Boogie" Thomas, of Marshall, was one set to go to trial in October, but halted after charges were dismissed in September. Prosecutors said the murder charge was dismissed at the request of the victim's sister, Demetria McFarland, in hopes that the state could build a stronger case.

According to the motion to dismiss, which was signed by both McFarland and the district attorney, "after consultation with the family of the victim as well as the law enforcement officers directly involved in the investigation of this case, we are all in agreement that the case is not yet ripe for prosecution."

The motion goes on to say that: "It is believed that with additional time, more facts may come to light about this homicide that will allow us to more effectively present this case to a jury."

Death penalty sentence upheld

In November, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, denied Marshall native and death row inmate Cortne Robinson's application for writ of habeas corpus, which he filed to determine if his detention and death sentence is unlawful.

Robinson was convicted in March 2011 for fatally shooting 82-year-old Frank Zabokrtsky during a September 2009 home invasion in which the victim's wife was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. Robinson was 18 years old, at the time, and the first of three co-defendants to stand trial in the case.

Robinson, the person responsible for pulling the trigger and even made a rap song about it, was sentenced to death for his actions. He filed an appeal following his conviction; however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied his appeal in June 2013, and affirmed his conviction and sentence of death. With the state's final ruling in November, Robinson can now seek federal review of his sentence in the United States court system.

Million dollar verdict

In June, world-renowned car seat manufacturer, Dorel Juvenile Inc., was ordered to pay an East Texas family $34.4 million in damages for the life-altering injuries that a child sustained while in the company's Safety 1st Summit seat during a May 2013 car crash, a federal jury in Marshall determined.

"I think the jury got it right," Jeff Embry, attorney for the child's parents told the News Messenger following the trial, which was held in Marshall's U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap's courtroom. "(You) have a company that forgot their primary purpose - (which is) to protect kids."

In the case, Nicole Hinson, of Longview, and her ex-husband, Cameron Hinson, of Hallsville, sued the car seat manufacturer for failing to adequately warn consumers and customers of the risks posed to children younger than age 2, positioned in a forward facing car seat as opposed to a rear-facing car seat.

The jury of four men and four women agreed that due to the company's negligence, Dorel's forward-facing seat caused the young child's severe spinal cord injury, which left him partially paralyzed. They also determined that the company's negligence was responsible for his brain injury.

Fugitive on the run found, extradited

In November, a Karnack man, who had been on the run for six years after allegedly killing a man in a drunken driving accident, was finally extradited back to Harrison County after fleeing to England.

The defendant, 56-year-old Paul Box, was booked into the county jail on an intoxicated manslaughter with a vehicle charge. He was indicted back in 2010 for the Feb. 25, 2010 death of Thomas Jackson "TJ" Frost, a 39-year-old construction worker from Jefferson.

According to the indictment, Box, an oil field worker from Karnack, allegedly operated a vehicle in a public place while intoxicated with a combination of alcohol and benzodiazepines. The indictment goes on to say that Box's alleged intoxication caused the death of Frost, by accident or mistake, when he drove his vehicle across the center dividing line of the highway, striking Frost's vehicle. Frost succumbed to his injuries while in the helicopter on his way to the hospital.

Adoptions

In November, the season of Thanksgiving took on a whole new meaning for seven area families when they all took the oath, before a judge, to provide a forever home to some deserving children.

The adoptions took place in observance of National Adoption Day. Four boys and three girls were adopted as families took an oath - before 71st District Judge Brad Morin and County Court-at-Law Judge Joe Black - to love, support and care for the children while providing them a "forever" home.

"There's a lot of kids out there that need a home, need (supportive) parents," said Black.

The county currently has about 130 children in foster care. Addressing the crowd, Black noted that the adoption ceremony is one of the judicial system's "better days."

"Today's a good day. These are good days," said Black.

"We don't have anybody that walks out of the courtroom unhappy," Morin concurred.

International visit

In October, visiting Judge Young Gi Kim, of the Uijeongbu District Court from the Republic of Korea, took a tour around Marshall, getting familiar with the small East Texas town, renowned for being “the patent litigation capital” in the country.

“I heard in Korea that the Eastern District of Texas has a lot of patent cases and especially the Marshall and Tyler (federal courts) have a lot of patent dockets,” Kim said while taking a guided tour of the historic 1901 Harrison County Courthouse and museum .

“The reason why I came here (is) just to learn about how the judges are handling a lot of patent cases efficiently and also how the attorneys are performing their pleading and preparing their performance in this bar,” he said. “I’m learning it, but I’m also learning the culture itself.

“So, it is very interesting and very meaningful for me,” the judge said.

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