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Steven Lewis Whittaker

A Walker County man was sentenced to life without parole for stabbing his friend about 50 times and killing him in 2018.

Steven Lewis Whittaker, 61 of Rossville, Georgia, was convicted of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and possession of a knife while in commission of a felony after a two-day trial in Walker County.

District Attorney Chris Arnt argued in the trial the act was a "horrific and brutal assault."

"Mr. Hankins would have been utterly defenseless through much of the attack, yet the defendant continued to violently assault him," Arnt said in a news release. "I am pleased to get this measure of justice for Mr. Hankins and his family and to know that this violent criminal will be off our streets for good."

In August 2018, Whittaker stabbed his friend dozens of times and squeezed his neck until he crushed the man's larynx, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said at the time.

Wilson said Whittaker killed LeBron "Buddy" Hankins Jr. around 10:15 p.m. Friday. Whittaker called 911 about 30-45 minutes later and when officers found him, he had a stab wound in his stomach, and paramedics drove him to a local hospital for surgery.

"The only statement he made, as he was being loaded into an ambulance, was that he was trying to protect himself and it was self defense," Wilson said.

But Walker County Coroner Dewayne Wilson said the attack on Hankins was violent. He was beaten with stab wounds on his neck, chest and arms. He lay face-up on the floor, a knife next to him. On a preliminary review, a GBI medical examiner estimated that Hankins' attacker stabbed him 50 times.

Hankins and Whittaker had been friends for many years before the incident and the two men were drinking in Whittaker's home.

Arnt said Whittaker had called 911 "highly intoxicated" and said there was a "dead man down" in his home. By the time officers arrived, Hankins' body was lying in a massive pool of blood that had already begun to coagulate.

Detective Eddie Hill with the Walker County Sheriff's Office investigated the case. Whittaker first claimed that Hankins had attacked him and that Whittaker killed him in retaliation.

Whittaker later told police he did not remember what happened, but guessed that "he just came unglued," Arnt said.

Whittaker also told Hill that Hankins generally cowered to him, and his friend "could not fight his way out of a paper bag."

During the trial, neighbors who knew both men testified that they had witnessed previous acts of physical violence by Whittaker against Hankins and that Whittaker became particularly cruel and violent when he would drink liquor. Arnt said one neighbor compared Whittaker to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Dr. Keith Lehman, a medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation State Crime laboratory, testified and detailed the extensive and severe injuries inflicted on Hankins.

Lehman described a blow the head so violent that it "had broken Hankins' neck and evidence of intense strangulation." Some of the injuries appeared to have been inflicted at the immediate time of death or after Hankins was already dead.

Whittaker was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, including an additional five years for possessing a knife during his assault on Hankins.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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