Billy Hawk found guilty, sentenced to life in prison

A jury has found Billy Hawk guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

After beginning deliberations Saturday, jurors remained under guard Sunday and returned today at 9 a.m. They announced their decision around 11 a.m.

All week, prosecutors argued Hawk shot, killed, and stuffed his co-defendant in a pending cocaine distribution case, Johnny Mack Salyer, in a 55-gallon steel drum in summer 1981.

Hawk's trio of defense attorneys - Bill Speek, Jim Logan, and Jonathan Turner - countered Salyer was a known drug dealer and addict who owed thousands of dollars to area drug cartels. They said Salyer was caught up in the same 1981 arrest as Hawk and his then-girlfriend, Debra Bales, and was never an informant.

Furthermore, they argued, investigators never produced an eyewitness to the crime, never interviewed cartel members and never produced receipts of Hawk purchasing a barrel. Prosecutors instead relied on several witnesses who gave differing statements to investigators over the years, they said.

During closing arguments Saturday, Lance Pope, the executive assistant district attorney, implored jurors to separate the evidence from the defense's insinuations.

For instance, his ex-wife placed Hawk in a boat with a barrel around April or May 1981. Bob Hawk said he noticed his brother on Chickamauga Lake in May 1981 in a fishing boat he'd never seen before. And another ex-girlfriend said Hawk confessed to the crime days before the barrel turned up.

"Was there any proof whatsoever that [cartel member] C.W. Stephens had any access to a boat?" Pope asked. "Was there any proof they had some familiarity with Chickamauga Lake? Any proof they had seen someone in possession of a barrel? What about admitting their involvement to a witness?"

During his closings, Speek said the defense wasn't trying to trick anyone. He pointed out that state witnesses had either inconsistent memories, poor recollection, or no hard evidence - just testimony.