published Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Chattanooga man pleads to lesser charge in 2011 slaying

The co-defendant of a man who received life in prison for a 2011 murder has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and already is eligible for parole.

Napoleon Dangelo Justice, 24, had been charged with first-degree murder along with Jerrico "Ri-Ri" Hawthorne, 26, in the July 27, 2011, robbery-turned-killing of James Williams Jr., 23.

Hawthorne went on trial in August. A jury found him guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

On Tuesday morning, Justice pleaded guilty in Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern's courtroom to facilitation of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to eight years.

Under Tennessee Department of Correction guidelines he must serve 30 percent of that sentence, or two years and five months, before he is parole eligible. Justice has been in jail custody since shortly after the July 27, 2011, crime.

Bill Speek, Justice's attorney, said Tuesday afternoon that because of his jail credits Justice is parole eligible now. However, the Tennessee Department of Correction must decide whether to grant parole.

"My client has always maintained that he wasn't there," Speek said. "There is no forensic proof to identify my client or tie my client to that scene."

Speek said Justice agreed to the plea in his own best interest because he, too, faced a life sentence if jurors agreed with testimony prosecutors planned to offer from two surviving victims in the shooting.

What prosecutors did have was eyewitness testimony from two victims who identified Justice as having been at the house during the robbery turned killing. But Speek had planned to use an expert to counter the witness testimony.

One of two surviving victims, Jeffrey Dunnigan, picked Hawthorne out of a police photo lineup shortly after the shooting. That, security camera footage, phone records and a "dying declaration" by James Williams, who said Hawthorne had killed him, all added to evidence against Hawthorne, prosecutor Cameron Williams said.

But the only evidence prosecutors had against Justice was Dunnigan's.

Nearly a month after the shooting, Dunnigan identified Justice in a police photo lineup. The investigator didn't think James Williams' girlfriend, Yetta Harris, could identify the suspects. But she was in the room with Dunnigan when he identified Justice.

Speek challenged that, but Stern ruled that the identification and testimony would come into the trial. The methods police used likely violated standard policies about using photo lineups, and Speek thought that testimony could be vulnerable if the case went to trial.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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