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Robert Joe Whittenburg

A trial date has been set for the man charged in the November 2017 double slayings of a Bledsoe County, Tennessee, mother and daughter who were hacked to death with an ax.

Robert Joe Whittenburg, listed as 44 at the time of his arrest, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the Nov. 30, 2017, slayings of 46-year-old Deanna Lawrence and her 24-year-old daughter, Dedra Lawrence.

A trial date is scheduled for the second week of May 2019, according to 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor.

The trial is set for May 7-9, Taylor said Tuesday. Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. "Rusty" Graham is assigned to preside over the trial, he said.

Whittenburg's lawyer, Dunlap attorney Sam Hudson, was involved in a trial Tuesday, according to staff in his office. He could not be reached for comment. Hudson was appointed after the public defender's office recused itself from the case citing a conflict, court officials said.

Deanna Lawrence and her daughter were living with the mother's unnamed boyfriend and Whittenburg at the time of the killings, authorities said during the initial investigation.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation initially charged Whittenburg on Dec. 3, 2017, with two counts of criminal homicide, but the two charges were upgraded to first-degree murder when a Bledsoe County grand jury indicted Whittenburg on March 26, officials said.

The killings happened in a residential area a block off U.S. Highway 27 in Pikeville, a town of around 1,600 about 50 miles northwest of Chattanooga.

According to preliminary autopsy findings, the mother and daughter "died of wounds supposedly inflicted with the ax," Taylor said of the case in March.

Taylor said the mother's boyfriend was at work the day the bodies were found and he had been trying to reach the Lawrences all day but couldn't get an answer on the phone.

When he got to the residence that day, all the doors were locked and he couldn't get anyone to let him inside. He finally made his way inside where he discovered the bodies and called authorities, Taylor said.

When the investigation began in 2017, Bledsoe County Sheriff Jimmy Morris described the scene authorities found when they arrived.

Bledsoe County and Pikeville police officers reaching the scene on Sawmill Road found the women "in a pool of blood," Morris told the Bledsonian-Banner in Pikeville last December.

Whittenburg had changed out of his bloodstained clothes and was lying on a bed in a bedroom at the home attempting to overdose, Morris told the newspaper. Whittenburg was booked in connection with the killings after he was released from a hospital for treatment of "self-inflicted" injuries, officials said.

Whittenburg remains at the Bledsoe County Detention Center on $750,000 bond.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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