The man convicted on a plea of killing 24-year-old Tullahoma, Tenn., nursing student Megan Sharpton is trying to withdraw that guilty plea and take the case to trial.
Donnie Jones Jr., 37, filed paperwork Monday from his prison cell in Morgan County, Tenn., claiming his legal counsel, Winchester, Tenn., lawyer Joseph Ford, coerced him into the guilty plea he entered on Feb. 4.
That plea earned Jones a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Jones, of 1912 Bel-Aire Drive in Tullahoma, initially was charged with first-degree murder, especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated rape on an indictment issued by the Franklin County grand jury on Nov. 5.
Ford got Jones to plead guilty by telling him "the fact he could prove he was in another location when the crime occurred would mean nothing -- the jury would find him guilty anyway based on the mere word of the prosecutor," Jones states in a motion to withdraw guilty plea filed in Franklin County Circuit Court.
Jones also states that he was "told by authorities that if he did not plead guilty, they would find a way to convict his wife as well."
Jones contends he entered the guilty plea "to protect his innocent wife."
No charges have been filed against anyone else in the case.
Ford was in court in Grundy County on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
12th Judicial District Attorney Mike Taylor said Tuesday that the sentence would not have been "official" until 30 days past the plea date, which would have been next week.
Jones' motion seeking a trial now is set for a hearing on April 9, but Taylor said he expected Jones would be appointed an attorney first and the actual hearing might be reset for later.
Taylor said he was unaware of any behavior among prosecutors or law enforcement to support Jones' claims regarding "authorities," but that Jones' would have to present evidence to the court, and a judge would make an official determination on whether to set aside the guilty plea for a jury trial.
On July 2, 2012, a motorist saw what was first thought to be a grass fire on Awalt Road near the bridge over Tims Ford Lake, but when authorities arrived they found Megan Sharpton's partially burned body. Her 1995 Ford Mustang was discovered the same day on Three Forks Bridge Road in Bedford County, 15 to 20 miles away.
Authorities said she came into contact with Jones through his wife, also a nursing student. Jones arranged a meeting with Sharpton under the guise of leading her to a job caring for someone at that person's home, authorities in Franklin County said.
Jones' attempt to take the case to trial has left Megan Sharpton's mother, Kelly, in a state of shock.
She said the Feb. 4 plea allowed the Sharpton family to begin trying to heal, but Jones' effort Monday reopened those wounds.
After learning of the court filing, "I took a deep breath and drove out to the bridge where they found her," Sharpton said Tuesday of her reaction. "I kicked the dirt where it was charred. I told her I will stand up again for her."
And the mother who worries about the impact a trial could have on her remaining five children said she hopes her late daughter can be a beacon of hope for female victims of violence.
"I am resolved to fight for her and any other girl that's like her," she said. "I won't let this go."
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...