DECATUR, Tenn. — After less than two hours of deliberations Wednesday, a jury found a Meigs County man guilty of second-degree murder in the 2012 hammer slaying of his mother.
Jeron R. Smith, 27, was tried this week before Circuit Criminal Court Judge Jeff Wicks and a jury of seven women and five men on charges of first-degree murder in the Nov. 6, 2012, fatal hammer attack on his mother, 50-year-old Karen Neal.
Smith was found not guilty of first-degree murder, but he was convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a sentencing range of 15-25 years, court officials said. A sentencing date is set for 1 p.m. July 23 in Meigs County Circuit Criminal Court.
The state rested its case Wednesday morning after a medical examiner testified about the brutal head injuries Neal received from a claw hammer prosecutors said was wielded by her son. After as many as 10 blows, pieces of the woman's brain had been dug out of her skull, according to testimony.
The only defense witness to testify Wednesday was the defendant, Smith, who described his version of events on Nov. 6, 2012, at the Georgetown, Tenn., home of his mother and stepfather, John Neal.
During direct questioning by Assistant Public Defender Mart Cizek, Smith testified that the day of the slaying he had stopped by his mental health care provider to get a refill of needed medication, but he was unable to get his medicine so he returned home.
He said his mother accused him of using drugs and "getting into trouble." At one point, the conversation got loud but then calmed down, he testified. His mother then started cleaning his room, but when she discovered an adult film of his, she told him to leave if he was going to "disrespect her house."
Smith said he pushed past her and knocked her down. He said it was then he put his 5-year-old nephew into a closet because he "didn't want him to be around what was happening."
Smith testified that outside the house, he threatened her with a rock. She responded by firing a shotgun at him, hitting him in the arm. She then went back inside the house.
"I can't tell you why I did it," Smith testified. "It was a argument. I didn't know what to do.
"I picked the hammer up as I was walking in," he said. Smith said he followed his mother into the kitchen.
"I didn't know what to do. I struck her in the head," Smith said with his head down and crying. "I struck her in front of the head. I hit her with the claw side above the ear.
"I blacked out."
In other testimony, Smith's cousin Valisa Dickey said she had a disturbing conversation with him six to eight months before the slaying.
"I felt like something wasn't right with him," she said. "He basically told me he hated his mother."
Dickey passed along her concerns to a family member, saying she was worried that if Smith was left alone with his mother he would do something to her.
In the state's closing statement, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Bennett recalled earlier testimony by Karen Neal's grandson, who was just 5 years old at the time of the incident.
The boy, now 11, testified Tuesday that his grandmother had sat him down in the living room to watch a movie when Smith, whom he called "Uncle Tank," arrived.
"While he was watching that movie, his 'Uncle Tank' took him up and put him in the closet," Bennett recalled of the boy's testimony.
But he "didn't hear any sort of gunshot," she noted, countering Smith's testimony that he was shot first with a shotgun by his mother.
"The defendant threatened to kill him, too," Bennett said. But Smith freed the boy from the closet.
As the boy walked out of the closet and into the kitchen, he saw "what could only be described as a 5-year-old's nightmare," she told jurors.
She pointed to the boy's testimony that he saw his grandmother lying on the floor, watched Smith drag her body from the kitchen into the living room, where Smith then struck her repeatedly with the hammer.
Family members declined to comment on the verdict following the conclusion of the trial.
At the end of his testimony, Smith was asked if he was sorry.
"There's not really a word to describe it," he answered, then referred to having been put on medication because he wanted to harm himself and "other things that I've done."
Then he added, "Yes, I'm sorry."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.