Hamilton County judge grants Billy Hawk new trial in 1981 murder case after post-conviction hearings

Billy Hawk appears before Judge Don Poole and the jury on Monday, June 6, 2016.

A judge has granted a new trial for a 65-year-old Chattanooga man convicted of a 1981 cold-case murder nearly three years ago.

In an order Tuesday, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole rejected Bill Hawk's motion for acquittal but agreed to grant him a new trial after three days of post-conviction hearings last month.

The Times Free Press could not obtain a memorandum explaining Poole's reasoning before the courts closed. But among other things, Hawk's post-conviction lawyers argued in March that prosecutors improperly mentioned a polygraph in front of jurors.

Though authorities still use them, polygraphs are considered inadmissible in Tennessee courts. In 2017, the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals drew a firm line in the sand on the issue when it sent an unrelated murder conviction back to Chattanooga for a new trial because a judge allowed prosecutors to mention a polygraph test.

Hawk, who has been serving a life sentence in Northwest Correctional Facility in Tiptonville, Tenn., could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office said they could not comment on pending cases.

In September 2015, Chattanooga prosecutors indicted Hawk, whose family owned the Brainerd Bowling Alley, for the 1981 murder of Johnny Mack Salyer. In June of that year, prosecutors said a couple found a barrel floating in the lake behind their home and called authorities because of the stench. Inside was Salyer, deteriorated, and he was only clad in underwear. At the time, Salyer and Hawk were co-defendants in a cocaine distribution case.

Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said authorities suspected Hawk committed the crime, but a series of uncooperative younger witnesses prevented them from bringing a case. The murder went cold despite efforts over the years to trip up Hawk. Then two former romantic partners who said Hawk discussed the crime with them agreed to assist authorities around the time of the 2015 indictment.

Defense attorneys argued the state had no evidence: It hadn't kept the barrel Salyer was found in and its case boiled down to the embellished 35-year-old memories of the romantic partners. Defense attorneys also pointed out that Salyer was in debt to area drug dealers that had a greater motive to kill him than Hawk.

Hawk will next appear in court on May 16. At that time, the discussion will likely revolve around whether Hawk needs to remain in custody while his new trial is pending.