By Nancy R Koerner
©️2023 – NK Marketing, LLC - All Rights Reserved
PART ONE - “Occam’s Razor”
“Do you know what this is?” Murray “Bubba” Lawrence, Jr. gestures to the gun in his hand. He is at point-blank range, his finger on the trigger. Murray has been working himself into a frenzy. “Do you know what time it is?” His voice sounds like Dirty Harry. The young man’s white face is frozen in fear – his eyes, like a deer in the headlights.
The 9mm slug hits the young man, high in the middle of the throat. It’s a perfect shot. Blood splatters everywhere. Brandon Hastings drops like a stone. He is 21 years old. It is dark here on the side of the road, in rural Alabama, just west of Foley. It is almost exactly at 2 AM, on April 6th, 2003 – just as the time is officially changing one hour ahead to Daylight Saving Time.
Two years later in May 2005, Brandon Hastings’ actual killer will testify in court against Murray “Bubba” Lawrence, using this fictitious story in an attempt to frame him – in order to avoid the death sentence.
”A Verbal Lynching in Alabama” is a true-crime story of greed, murder, treachery, and wrongful conviction. The facts contained herein are drawn from, and strictly based on the over 2000-page official court transcript, taking more than a thousand hours to analyze, dissect, and scrutinize. Through witness testimony, personal interviews, rigorous study of Brandon’s phone log, and the physical re-tracing and timing of the murderer’s alleged route from Alabama to Mississippi where the body was dumped, a visual story begins to emerge. Previously, no timeline for this murder case ever existed or had been proposed. But now, through exhaustive research, the puzzle is no longer incomplete. All the pieces fit.
It was not Murray “Bubba” Lawrence who had actually killed Brandon Hastings on April 6th, 2003. It was another young African-American man named Jarius McNeil. Already convicted of Federal counterfeiting charges and awaiting sentence, McNeil had been quickly apprehended by police investigators. By the end of the month, he had been arrested for possession of stolen property. By May 15th, 2003, he had been indicted for Brandon’s murder. McNeil had then copped a plea-deal for “felony murder” – as “capital murder” would have automatically invoked the death penalty. During the next several months, when Jarius would be held in jail pending sentence, no mention of his best friend, Murray, or gunshot, was ever made. Then something very strange happened.
On July 31st, these same investigators (Lieutenant “Hoss Mack, Sergeant Dean McGowan, and District Attorney’s Assistant Anthony Lowery) who had interrogated Jarius many times before, suddenly informed him that he was going to receive the death penalty for “capital murder,” unless he could produce a co-conspirator. But there had been no accomplice, and the investigators knew it. Jarius was mystified. What were they suggesting? Collusion? The complicit participation of the court, the investigators, the prosecutor, the judge?
Strangely enough, Jarius and Brandon, the man he would kill, had also been friends for several years. This included phone contact while Jarius was in the service in California, where he had been given a less-than-honorable Army discharge, and then caught passing bad checks. It seemed an unlikely friendship. Jarius was an African-American from the ‘hood’ in Fairhope, AL. His life had been full of personal conflicts, and clashes with the law.
Brandon was a stylish, clean-cut, small-and-slender white kid from a good family, whose pride-and-joy was his tricked-out white Acura. With its shiny rims, and gnarly speakers, the Acura would pound out Eminem and Snoop Dogg, as Brandon and his buddies cruised the beach at Gulf Shores. Brandon was financially stable; he worked two jobs to keep that car in pristine condition. He wore high-end, name-brand clothing, and was known to always have a few hundred bucks in his wallet.
On the other hand, Jarius was broke and desperate. He was maxed-out. The Feds had been about to sentence him for the counterfeiting conviction. He had no income; his rent was in arrears. Plus, his cell phone had just been cut off. Jarius had decided that, whatever was in Brandon’s wallet – along with the value of his shiny car – would be his way out.
In the fairy tale Jarius’ would retroactively “invent,” this is when he’d decided to acquire his fictitious accomplice. On Saturday night, April 3rd, 2003, he claimed to have stopped at a payphone to reach Murray by cell, and supposedly, he had agreed to help in exchange for half the booty.
As an aside, a jilted girlfriend would later testify in Murray’s 2005 case that “Bubba” Lawrence liked to identify as a “bad-ass” – that he could be a braggart, mouthing-off about his two handguns and his willingness to use them. Others knew Bubba to be a tender-hearted guy who couldn’t bear the sight of fresh roadkill, but hid behind a tough-guy exterior.
Jarius continues his false testimony against Murray in the 2005 case, quoting Bubba’s next comment after the gunshot, pushing the tough-guy facade.
“See that, bro? I told you I’d do him if I had to,” Murray had supposedly said, lowering the gun, and tucking it in his waistband.
Then, apparently disregarding Brandon’s bloody body lying dead in the grass a few feet away, McNeil testified that he and Lawrence coolly disconnected the fancy speakers, via the Acura’s trunk, and placed them in the back seat. These speakers would be part of Murray’s share. Then, having made room, they loaded Brandon’s blood-soaked body, face-down, into the trunk. Jarius claims that Murray got back in his girlfriend’s car, which he had borrowed, and drove home.
OK. Wait. Hold on. Let’s pause, and get this straight.
Earlier that evening, Bubba had picked-up a call from Jarius, agreed to help him pull off a robbery, and threatened “to DO him (Brandon) if he has to.” Why? Then Bubba miraculously arrived at a pre-determined rendezvous on an Alabaman country road in the middle of the night? He got there just in time to take over as aggressor, and murdered the robbery victim in cold blood? Then demurely got in his car, and drove back home?
If Brandon was Jarius’ “friend,” why didn’t he pummel Bubba, and curse him out for suddenly pulling a gun out-of-nowhere, shooting and killing “his friend, Brandon” whom they were “only going to rob?” Why is Murray portrayed as being all worked up in a fit of anger with Brandon before he shoots? And, if the gnarly speakers were part of Murray’s cut, why were they put in the backseat of the Acura? Why weren’t they put directly into Murray’s girlfriend’s car, so he could take them home and hide them?
Occam’s Razor, a.k.a. the principle of parsimony, states that the simplest explanation is more likely to be true than a complex one.
Nope. None of it rings true. The language Murray was reputed to have used sounds like some old gangster flick. (Besides Clint Eastwood, who talks like that?) So, what really happened? 1) Sadly, Brandon really was murdered. 2) It was Jarius who killed him. And 3) Jarius acted alone. The rest never happened. There was no accomplice. At the time of the murder, Bubba had been thirty miles away, at home, and in bed with his girlfriend. Five alibi witnesses would later testify as to Bubba’s activities and his whereabouts that night.
Need more twists to the story? 1) Firstly, not only did Murray not kill Brandon, he did not even know him. Not his car, not his cell number. Never even met him. 2) Secondly, Brandon was not killed by gunshot; he was actually strangled – determined and confirmed by not only one, but two, Mississippi coroners. And 3) thirdly, if the prosecutor for this case, John David Whetstone, along with Jarius and the investigators, intended to frame Murray, then a motive would have to be fabricated. Knowing that his group of friends occasionally used recreational drugs, he decided to portray Murray as a crazed, drug-dealing, macho, gun-toting reprobate, in love with his own ego and power, and just looking for an excuse to shoot somebody.
If you are already thoroughly confused, then you have been paying attention. Time to shift into full “suspension-of-belief.” Stay frosty, and buckle your seat belt.
Using this array of preconceived notions, Whetstone would paint a contrived picture of Murray, then bully and badger the jury into accepting it. From the beginning of the trial, he would insist on being “able to prove” that Murray killed Brandon, that the murder had been all about drugs, and that the cause of death had been gunshot. Whetstone would abandon all reason – disregarding physics, ballistics, physical evidence, and live testimony. He would skew the truth to support his own point-of-view. With every move, he determined to make the story fit the crime. But it never, ever did. And he never proved a thing. Yet, Murray would be convicted.
In the days that followed the crime, rumors had spread throughout Fairhope, Foley, and Gulf Shores. Folks knew Brandon was missing, but no one knew he was actually deceased until his body was found on April 11th near Vancleave, Mississippi. In the meantime, Jarius had been agitated, pressing friends “to hold” various possessions for him in case of a search. One of those items would be a 9mm stolen handgun, utterly coincidental to the crime. Jarius would ask an acquaintance named Jeff Shaw to “hold it” for him. Even though this particular gun is unrelated to the crime, the timing of its very existence will prove devastating for Murray.
Strange that Jarius – a liar, thief, and murderer – was the only “witness” to Brandon “being shot by Murray.” Strange that it would take twenty-one months (from August 2003 to May 2005) to bring Murray’s case to trial. Strange that a man could be convicted without any DNA blood evidence, hair, fiber, fingerprints, or murder weapon.
Dr. Paul McGarry’s “provisional” autopsy took place on April 12th at Singing River Hospital in MS. Once Brandon had been identified, the second coroner, Jackson County’s, Vickie Broadus, and issued a second death certificate including his name. Both experts agreed on cause-of-death.
Asphyxia due to ligature strangulation.
a. Collapsed congested atelectatic lungs
b. Fracture hyoid bone
c. Congested cyanotic viscera
d. Fresh contusions and abrasions of the upper left knee and wrist, right upper forearm
The body would have been transported to the designated funeral home in Baldwin County, either later that same day, or early on April 13th, as that would be the date of interment. And yet, no Alabama coroner’s report and accompanying death certificate seemed to have been issued. Why would such important protocol be overlooked? Either Baldwin County should have openly honored the Mississippi forensics, or their contrasting determination should have been declared, and legally substantiated.
In retrospect, there would be more than irony in the fact that Brandon had been conveyed directly from Jackson County Coroner to the Alabama funeral home — instead of going to the Baldwin County Coroner. That is, until one realizes that Huey Mack (Sr.) of the Mack Funeral Home was the Baldwin County coroner. Now, also consider that (then) Lieutenant “Hoss” Mack (Jr.) was also the Chief Investigator in the Hastings death, and suddenly, the whole scenario seems suspiciously, and conveniently, all-in-the-family.
But Baldwin County would not be able to find a way to artfully disagree with Mississippi results. No wonder there would be ongoing delays. Baldwin County would not be able to get ballistics because there was no gunshot. Baldwin County would not be able to obtain comparable autopsy results because strangulation just does not look like a bullet wound. Baldwin County would not be able to prove that “blood had splattered everywhere” because they could not find a single drop anywhere. And, if a Baldwin County coroner’s report indeed existed, it was never admitted into evidence, nor even mentioned in the trial. Suppression of documents, compromised evidence, misidentification of wounds, and ongoing controversy, strangulation vs gunshot — all theories seemed to be on the table, and all caused more delay. Twenty-one months of delay.
They just could not get the lie to agree with the truth.
It is also worth remembering that it would have been up to “Hoss” Mack (Jr.’s), as Chief Investigator, to take this issue to the District Attorney. Then it would have been up to the D.A. to decide if he wanted to press charges, and take it to the Grand Jury. And who was this District Attorney? None other than this same, very-motivated prosecutor: David John Whetstone.
PART TWO - “Doing the Math”
When first approaching the task of criminal investigation, one would think that establishing a sequence of events would be vital. Yet, in Murray’s case in 2005, no such timeline had ever been generated. How could that be? How could a criminal case in a courtroom be prosecuted, or defended, without knowing who was where, and when?
It is Spring Break, 2003. Several groups of friends are gathered across Fairhope, Lake Forest, Daphne, Foley, and Gulf Shores. They are “partying” – getting together at each other’s houses, and enjoying some casual time on a holiday weekend. These young people are age 18-24, and free-spirited. They enjoy casual use of recreational drugs. Mostly pot, but sometimes coke too. When one scores, they all go in together financially. It’s low-level, just within their clique. Most are employed in the hospitality industry, responsible in paying their bills, and earning a living. (Not all, but most.)
Cast of Characters:
Murray “Bubba” Lawrence, Jr. – Wrongfully convicted of the murder of Brandon Hastings.
Michael Dozier – Friend of Bubba’s
Stacey Giambrone – Friend of Tonya’s
Jarius McNeil – Actual murderer of Brandon Hastings
Debra Fudge – Fellow Bebo’s employee, works with Brandon.
Brandon Hastings – Innocent victim of murder/robbery. Works at Bebo’s.
Tonya Mixson – Bubba’s girlfriend. Lives with Murray in mother’s house, Elizabeth Mixson
Cynthia Weston – Jarius’ live-together girlfriend.
John Wayne Mixson – Brother of Tonya Mixson, son of Elizabeth Mixson. All reside in Elizabeth Mixson’s house.
Crystal Curtis Lindsey – Friend of a friend who joined the party late.
Throughout the evening, there have been many phones calls between the groups, and within the groups – making plans, changing plans, or deciding to meet at the beach. Three of these calls, before midnight, will bear testimony to the fact that Jarius and Brandon were trying to arrange a solo meeting, after everyone else had departed.
April 5th, 2003 – Saturday evening
9:30 PM - Jarius drops by Bubba’s house. Conveniently, Bubba is not there, which gives Jarius the perfect opportunity to call Brandon on the Mixson land-line, since Jarius’ cell phone service was canceled due to non-payment. Jarius affirms this call in court testimony; he was “looking for Brandon.”
Gradually, just before midnight, various individuals peel off from their respective groups, and head home. However, Brandon Hastings says ‘bye to his buddies, but then lingers, still expecting to make post-midnight plans with Jarius.
11:39 PM - Brandon receives a call from Jarius from a payphone in Gulf Shores, likely Surfside Style Shop, then hangs up to avoid being charged. Jarius affirms this in court testimony.
11:40 PM - Brandon immediately makes a tag-back call to the Surfside Style Shop’s payphone in Gulf Shores where Jarius waits.
April 6th, 2003 – Sunday morning, after midnight
12:00 AM – Bubba and Michael Dozier are partying at Tonya’s house. Michael Dozier lends Bubba his car to go score coke in Mobile, about an hour, round-trip. Dozier remains with Tonya and Stacey, waiting for Bubba’s return.
1:00 AM – Bubba returns from Mobile. They all do some cocaine. Michael Dozier then leaves for the night. Stacey and Tonya are still present.
1:30 AM – Bubba borrows Tonya’s car to go buy get a cigar, to make a “blunt” to smoke marijuana.
1:45 AM – Bubba returns. The three of them smoke the marijuana blunt. Stacey leaves for the night around 2:00AM.
If this is not exactly what actually happened, it is the most likely scenario, according to the sequence of events played out in the court transcript.
NOTE: Since no one witnessed Jarius’ journey on the night of Brandon’s murder, a speculative timeline has been created from the “fly-on-the-wall” perspective. Only one possible interpretation, but a damned good one. Why? Because it hits all the notes. Nothing is left out, and everything fits. There are the facts of the transcript: Brandon’s cell phone log, testimonies of alibi eye-witnesses, and the confused chronological references due to transition to Daylight Savings Time. But, even those, ultimately, still fit.
This timeline was corroborated in real-life, researched by physically traveling the route – from Alabama to Mississippi and back, twice – once in 2021, and again in Feb. 2023. To exactly simulate Jarius’ alleged journey on the night of the murder, the distance and duration of each leg was carefully timed and denoted. Results would turn out near-identical. This template was then over-laid on Jarius’ movements starting at midnight of Sunday, April 6th, 2003, Central Standard Time. One must note that, at 2:00 AM, the clock changes, and automatically, becomes 3:00 AM Central Daylight Time – creating an additional vacuum that exacerbates the challenge – a ghostly non-hour that does not exist.
April 6th, 2003 – Sunday morning, after midnight (continued)
1:20 AM - Jarius uses payphone at the Pick-n-Pay (CR 12 and CR 49) to call Brandon’s cell. They arrange to meet at an adjacent parking lot, near Bebo’s Car Wash in Foley, where Brandon is employed. Jarius is on his way. (Drive time - approx. 10 min.)
1:30 AM - Jarius arrives at the specified vacant parking lot, adjacent to Bebo’s, and parks his car. Jarius must remain unseen. Brandon picks him up in the vacant lot, but instead of heading out down the road, Brandon stops at the well-lit Bebo’s Car Wash. (Duration of delay, approx. 5 min.) Jarius undoubtedly flinches, at this unforeseen potential exposure. How desperate must he have been, to carry on with the plan, rather than abort?
1:35 AM - Debra Fudge, a fellow Bebo’s employee, sees Brandon in the driver’s seat, and notes that a young African-American man is with him in the passenger’s seat. Other than Jarius, Debra is the last person to see Brandon alive. Curious that, although she will be interviewed and subpoenaed, she will be never be called to testify on the stand.
1:47 AM – Brandon and Jarius leave Bebo’s and drive to a well-known canopied section of trees on CR 49, about 1 ½ miles north of Pick-n-Pay. [Drive time - approx. 12 min. This is the “alleged murder site,” according to Jarius’ testimony – whether it’s the version with, or without Murray.]
1:48 AM - 1:59 AM – Jarius kills Brandon, strangulation by ligature. How was it that no weapon appropriate for strangulation had ever been found, nor was presented during the trial? So, how is it that jumper cables – an immediate and obvious choice as ligature, readily available in Brandon’s car – and added into evidence – were never considered a potential murder weapon?
Could it be, that forensically-unexamined jumper cables, containing Jarius’ DNA, and Murray’s key to freedom, still sit in some obscure evidence locker in Baldwin County?
2:00 AM (OLD TIME) Jarius (likely) loads Brandon’s body into front seat, rather than the trunk.
3:00 AM (NEW TIME) Jarius (likely) loads Brandon’s body into front seat, rather than the trunk.
This is the ghostly non-hour that does not exist.
3:01 AM (Central Daylight Time) – Unlike Jarius’ fictitious story, in which he and Murray remove the speakers at the scene of the crime – consider, instead, that Jarius actually drives (approx. 24 minutes, arriving at 3:25AM) at his Uncle Steve Heard’s house in Fairhope, looking for his half-brother, Damien. Keep in mind that Jarius may not have intended to murder Brandon – that it might have been a robbery gone wrong. Regardless, he now has to dispose of both body and car. As Damien is in Panama City, Uncle Steve helps to quickly remove the speakers from the trunk to the backseat, and move Brandon’s inert body – from the front passenger’s seat to the trunk. Then Jarius departs, driving to Bubba’s and Tonya’s which is close by. He arrives just minutes later.
3:30 AM – Jarius unloads the speakers, puts them on Bubba and Tonya’s front porch, and taps on the window. Tonya peeks out, and sees an unrecognized car with shiny rims. Bubba goes outside, sees Jarius, the speakers on the porch, and a car that is not his own. He smells a rat. Jarius insists Bubba and Tonya should “hold” the speakers for him. Tonya protests, but to no avail. Speakers are deposited in her bedroom. (Duration of brief visit, approx. 10 min.)
Now contrast this with Jarius testimony, Page 1433.
Prosecutor Whetstone questions: “And where did y’all decide to go?” And Jarius lies, “Well, he needed to drop Tonya’s vehicle back off at her house before we moved on further as far as disposing of the body.”
3:40 AM – No, much more likely that this played out very differently. Jarius leaves Bubba and Tonya’s, who have not been aware that Brandon’s body is in the trunk of the Acura. Jarius now heads to Mississippi, alone, probably to a vicinity recommended by Uncle Steve, where many members of the extended Heard family reside.
This journey will take 77 minutes, in total, made up of three segments. (See 4:44 AM entry.)
Here, we depart from Jarius’ story, temporarily, to depict coinciding actions of other players (in red), in other locations. These two components will eventually intertwine and lock-in Jarius’ timeline in his return trip from Mississippi.
4:00 AM – Meanwhile, another party is in motion. Crystal Curtis Lindsay leaves Emily Price’s place in Lake Forest, along with John Wayne Mixson, who she has just met. They drive to Tonya’s. (Drive time – approx. 20 min.) John is Tonya Mixson’s brother, and also lives at the same house as she and Bubba. Crystal has never met Bubba before that night, nor has she ever met Tonya. There is no reason why Crystal would try to protect Bubba in future court testimony. She is truly a NEUTRAL alibi witness.
4:20 AM – Crystal and John Wayne Mixson arrive at the Mixson house, and wake Bubba up to buy some coke from him. He is sleepy, bedraggled, wearing only pajama bottoms, and his Afro hair-style is flattened on one side. Likewise, Tonya. Disrupted from sleep for the second time in an hour – the first being Jarius forcing her/them to receive stolen goods – Tonya tries to ignore what going on, and does not actively engage.
4:35 AM – Crystal and John Wayne Mixson do some coke, and then leave Bubba and Tonya’s house, but will not get far… they will be stopped by a police officer…
Now, back to Jarius in Mississippi.
4:44 AM – Jarius finally arrives at his destination in Mississippi, via this route: from Bubba/Tonya’s (29 minutes) to I-10. West on I-10 to Gautier/Vancleave exit (44 min). Then north to Pine Grove (4 min) to intersection at Grasshopper Point. (Again, total of 77 minutes, or 1 hr. and 17 min.) This is where Jarius will dispose of Brandon’s body.
Now, back to Crystal and John Wayne in Alabama.
4:45 AM – Meanwhile, ten minutes after leaving Bubba/Tonya’s place, Crystal and John Wayne Mixson get pulled over by Fairhope Police. Miraculously, and oddly, in the most strict of all municipalities of Baldwin County, Officer Wendell Thomas does not arrest them, or give them a ticket, but strongly suggests that Crystal drive because Mixson is obviously drunk. They trade places. The traffic stop takes 10-15 minutes, which ends in the writing of an incident report.
Unlike Debra Fudge, Officer Wendell Thomas will not be subpoenaed. But, curiously, like Debra Fudge, he will also not be called on to testify.
Now, back to Jarius in Mississippi.
4:54 AM – Jarius disposes of Brandon’s body (duration 10 min), pulling him out of the car, and dragging him into the brush.
4:56 AM – Jarius has a false start. (2 min.) He remembers he should get rid of the trunk liner, dumps it, then takes off for home.
5:01 AM – Crystal and John Wayne Mixson have now been written up by Office Wendell Thomas who records the time of the traffic stop at 5:01 AM CDT.
It is important to note that, when the time changes, these young people, in “party mode,” have not been focused on adjusting their clocks at the stroke of 2:00AM. Maybe, they will remember to do it in the morning. They also cannot not know that, one day, there will be a trial for a crime committed that night – and they will be required to provide accurate testimony. So, even though their recollections will seem hazy, it will all come into focus due to the encounter with this policeman.
This 5:01 AM CDT stop – bearing the official and legally-documented time-stamp, on an accurate police clock that has definitely been adjusted to Central Daylight – is the very moment that allows the rest of the evening to be retro-actively configured. According to Crystal Lindsay’s testimony, Bubba was physically sighted, at home, in Fairhope, at 4:35 AM, corroborated by two other alibi witnesses, Tonya Mixson and John Wayne Mixson.
(It was just about this time that Jarius was, concurrently, disposing of Brandon’s body in Mississippi, and Jarius had testified that Bubba had gone with him. But no one can be in two places at once.)
Now, we go back to Jarius in Mississippi.
6:26 AM – Jarius reaches home in Fairhope (Total of 89 minutes, or 1 hr. 29 min.) – having stopped 10 minutes for gas on the way back. This corresponds exactly with, his girlfriend, Cynthia Weston’s testimony saying. “…the sun was about to come up.”
Internet confirms that, sunrise on Sun, April 6th, 2003, was at 6:30 CDT.
The sun is the greatest validating factor, as it does not care about Daylight Savings. After all, the sun has only come up one minute earlier than the previous day. (Not an hour-and-one-minute. That’s only a “clock” thing.)
PART THREE - “Malicious Prosecution”
On April 6th, 2003, Jarius McNeil murdered Brandon Hastings on the side of the road in Baldwin County. The official cause of death was asphyxia, due to strangulation by ligature. The motive’s for Brandon murder had been money. Jarius’ motive in August 2003 through May 2005 was to betray and sacrifice Bubba in order to save himself from lethal injection.
It is unknown what Jarius might have admitted during his own legal proceeding, but it would certainly have proved contradictory to the newly invented version. And what of the cooperation factor with the law? Would not any “new” story need to be properly “synchronized” with the “recollections” of those who’d been present? And now, were not these the same legal officials threatening him with the death sentence while, at the same time, proposing a deal that he give up an accomplice? Did that not mean they were already onboard?
More than “onboard,” the transcript shows that the investigators had actually volunteered the perfect foundation for Jarius’ new story. Lieutenant Mack’s testimony – in regard to the July 31st 2003 interview – recalls that when Dean McGowan first mentioned something about “the gun,” Jarius’ first verbal reaction had been ”what gun” Why would Jarius seem surprised at this reference, if he had witnessed Bubba blowing away Brandon with a 9mm? Yet, sure enough, once offered, this line-of-thinking became the basis of Jarius’ story to frame Murray.
But what of the motive of law enforcement personnel? What reason could they possibly have in pursuing a kangaroo-court proceeding (judge, witnesses, jury, and taxpayer expense) just to prosecute Bubba? History tells us there was likely an upcoming election around that time. Perhaps, the chance for a little extra publicity? Were these men simply in love with their badges, and their seemingly untouchable status?
Let’s first consider that Sweet Home Alabama, as lovely as she is, has worked hard for two hundred years to maintain its reputation as the most corrupt state in the country. Did Alabama, at that time – with its legacy of racial hatred, rooted in antebellum cotton fields – still fondly nurture its sense of white-righteous entitlement? Did these bureaucratic sons-of-the-south, descendants of plantation owners, still enjoy the figurative cracking-of-the-whip to preserve and defend their kleptocracy? Was it because:
- When it came to imprisoned African-American men, two were better than one?
- Bubba and Jarius were intimately involved with white women?
- Was it because the prosecutor has a personal grudge against Bubba’s father?
- Was it just an easy dismissal, “They are all a bunch of animals and drug dealers anyway…”
- Or, maybe because this court had a history of turning cases into drug cases, even if no drugs were involved?
In the transcript, it would appear that ALL these sentiments could have influenced this classic case of “malicious prosecution.”
The truth is that Bubba was not a violent person, and certainly no murderer. He had never been abusive with his girlfriend. He’d never been arrested. Although Bubba was unemployed at the time of Brandon’s murder, he was typically employed in the hospitality industry, as was his circle of friends and associates. On Bubba’s arrest date in June 2004, he’d been working for the prestigious Grand Hotel in Fairhope.
Bubba had been home with his girlfriend, Tonya, that night, when the murder had taken place. Several sets of friends had dropped by, very late, as it had been spring break and a party-weekend. Bubba did not know Brandon, had never met him. He did not know Brandon’s car, and certainly did not have his cell number. But these “facts” are nothing but distraction to the prosecutor. Instead, throughout the testimony, Mr. Whetstone seems obsessed with three supposed aspects of Bubba’s persona – despite their complete and utter lack of relevance to Brandon’s murder – drugs, guns, and alleged tough-guy attitude.
Drugs. Yes, Murray, Jr. and his friends enjoyed casual use of recreational drugs: marijuana and coke. Murray made the purchase, then sold to his circle of friends. It was all low-level, and only within their clique.
Guns. Yes, Murray was a gun-owner. He owned two handguns, a .38 and a 9mm, both legally permitted. He kept the .38 at his grandfather’s house, and the other he carried on his person, or kept in the car, for personal protection. Bubba did this to honor his girlfriend, Tonya, who did not like guns, as well as her mother, who occupied the same house.
Attitude. Yes, again. Murray sometimes exhibited machismo, fairly typical of any testosterone-laden young man in his early 20’s. Sometimes boastful, bragging, talking like a “big shot.” And, in this demographic, wouldn’t this have been more of the rule, rather than the exception?
In May 2005, Mr. John David Whetstone, was glad to prosecute this case against Murray. Despite his lack of criminal record, Whetstone believed him to be a drug dealer, plus he detested Bubba’s penchant for white women. There were long-term undercurrents of hostility and rivalry between Whetstone, police, and Bubba’s father – due to similar interracial dating preferences, and the elder Murray’s business and financial successes.
Like all talented high-profile prosecutors, Whetstone was a master manipulator. After all, attorneys do not receive public acclaim based on their moral ability to fight for righteousness and truth. Instead, they are actors in a role-play of life-and-death. Whetstone would have been equally adept at defense, seemed to prefer playing predator, if not God. And he loved to argue; all litigating attorneys are professional arguers. They are rewarded financially for their ability to influence, persuade, twist, wheedle, and exploit the heart-wrenching emotions of those in the jury box, rather than appealing to their intellect and logic.
So, Mr. Whetstone would ignore the facts: that Jarius McNeil had murdered Brandon, that the official cause of death was asphyxia due to ligature-strangulation, and that the motive was money. Instead, Whetstone would formulate a case built strictly on his own confirmation bias. He would browbeat the jury into believing that: 1) Bubba conspired to meet Jarius at the future murder site – with impeccable timing, especially considering Jarius had no cell phone – for the express purpose of delivering the death blow. 2) Contrary to the forensics of strangulation, Whetstone would argue that Bubba used the 9mm to shoot Brandon, and that the hit was motivated by drugs, as well as Bubba’s alleged need to be seen as “leader of the pack.” 3) And then Murray would simply melt away into the night? Having nothing more to do with the murder or the stolen goods?
Gun? Wait. What gun? Was there a gun, or not?
The answer is an unqualified NO. It was true that Murray owned a 9mm, but it had no part in the crime. However, there was another gun. Although the “stolen Steadman gun” was also circumstantial, it would unfortunately materialize during Murray’s 2005 legal proceedings, creating a mischaracterization of evidence, and a nightmare for Team Lawrence.
A local man named Clint Steadman had had a 9mm handgun stolen from his truck in November of 2002. The actual thief was unknown but, sometime after the New Year, the weapon ended up in the hands of John Wayne Mixson. Some people surmised that Mixson sold it to Jarius. After Brandon’s murder, Jarius was understandably nervous about the gun, and other items, afraid the police might get a search warrant. So Jarius randomly decided to ask Jeff Shaw “to hold” the gun for him. He was also unaware that Jeff Shaw was Murray Lawrence (Sr.’s) godson.
Within a day or two, word was out that Brandon was missing, although nothing more was known. Soon, rumor had it that Jarius might have been linked to Brandon’s disappearance. When Jeff quietly told his godfather that Jarius had, meanwhile, given him a gun “to hold”, the senior Mr. Lawrence had a visceral reaction, and had insisted on surrendering the firearm to Fairhope Police. After all, at this point, Brandon’s status was only that of a “missing person,” so the gun was not suspect, other than the fact that it had been in Jarius possession. But later, in retrospect, the prosecutor would misconstrue this extenuating circumstance, and distort it to make the optics look questionable.
When Murray, Sr. surrendered the “stolen Steadman gun” to Officer Steve Griffis, around the 9th of April 2003, he gave his statement as follows: “Jarius had given the gun to Jeff Shaw ‘to hold.’” That was all. Nothing implicated, nothing inferred. Twenty-one months later, in May of 2005, with the senior Murray on the witness stand, Officer Griffis had testified in court, radically misrepresenting the statement as: “This was the weapon used to kill that kid in Mississippi.” Murray, Sr. protested vehemently on the stand. “Not true! That’s not what I said.” He declared that he could not possibly have said such a thing because, at that time, it had not been known that Brandon was deceased, let alone murdered. That was not known until the body was found April 11th.
With this verbal sleight-of-hand, and his air of presumptive superiority, Whetstone simply decided that this would now be considered “fact,” and thereafter portrayed the “stolen Steadman gun” to be the murder weapon. He did not “conclude” this, he decided it – in spite of the determinations by the Mississippi coroners. The outcome of the trial would no longer be evidence-based. Whetstone made up this mental construct for his own purposes. He decided that Bubba was the murderer, that gunshot was the cause of death, and that the motive was drugs. With these cornerstones of self-indulgent logic now established, Whetstone has created the “round hole,” into which he will pound the “square peg” of fabrication for the duration of the trial, regardless of truth or circumstance.
But how could death-by-ligature-strangulation be made to look like gunshot? Well, it could not. But Whetstone will not be deterred by the obvious. So the prosecutor, the other investigators, together with Jarius, would create a “magic bullet” theory.
Accordingly, Bubba would arrive at the murder site a little ahead of time, and appear “stranded” on the roadside, with the hood up. At approximately 1:55 AM, Jarius and Brandon would pull over and prepare to give the guy a jump. But then Bubba would supposedly pick a fight with Brandon, who he’d never met – and fly into a rage, for which there was no cause? And then shoot Brandon in the head, resulting in massive trauma to the skull? Or maybe the throat? With Brandon being only 105 pounds, this fictitious bullet would have surely demolished the soft tissues of a neck – a visual target that would have been only 4” wide.
Nope. Just makes a nice, neat hole in the middle. And no blood. No blood on the car (with the hood up – or down), and no blood spatter on the handgun. None. Anywhere. Amazing. In fact, once that magic bullet had passed through Brandon’s body, it apparently became invisible also. Even with the use of dogs and metal detectors, investigators would never find a bullet embedded in the ground, or a shell casing. Clearly, it’s a miracle. (Yes, this is meant to sound snarky.)
With Murray as make-believe hitman, Jarius would have been only a few feet away, and yet could not describe exactly where Brandon was hit. (You’d think that maybe this type of experience might have been memorable.) In the transcript reference, Jarius says that Brandon was, alternately:
- ”shot in the back of the head,”
- ”in the head, above the left ear,”
- ”it appeared he (Brandon) was hit in the upper – the head, or the neck area of his body.”
- ”the blood came out very bad, it was all over his face, and head, and neck area.”
- ”Yes, sir. He was hit in the head.”
There would be more “miracles” to come. When the trunk liner was recovered, there would be no blood evidence when it should have been saturated. No forensics on hair or fiber that would have supported Bubba’s involvement. No ballistics would be run on the “Steadman gun” as there was nothing to test. There was no powder residue. Moreover, not a single fingerprint of Bubba’s would ever be found. Not on the gun, not on the car, nor any item in the car. Not anywhere. Because Murray had never been there. And, of course, the only person alleging that Bubba was involved in this crime, was the guy who would get the death penalty if he was not successful in convincing the court.
PART FOUR - “Forensics & Evidence”
First, let us pause, and speak reverently of Brandon, respecting and remembering his humanity. Not just a statistic, but a living, breathing, caring, human being – someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s nephew. It is not easy to render these gruesome details, but without understanding the forensics of the murder, exculpatory evidence cannot be uncovered. Brandon’s life has already been lost. If there is no examination of this case, then the essence of Murray’s life is also sacrificed.
Why did these two men actually pull over that night on the side the road? In the transcript, Jarius said he’d made up a story to tell Brandon – that someone he’d just met, down by the beach was having car trouble. (Again, without a cell phone? How would he know?) Now, the guy was apparently marooned, and needed a jump. Jarius had admitted in his testimony that he’d fully intended “to lure” Brandon.
In the real version, there was no “stranded” motorist. Maybe Brandon and Jarius had just pulled over to have a smoke, or perhaps to answer a call of nature. Whatever the reason, it seems likely that Jarius caught him from behind, perhaps throwing the jumper cables – the most available ligature – around his neck. Perhaps the front passenger’s seat was the most accessible ingress in which to maneuver and deposit Brandon. It is also possible that when Jarius got into the driver’s seat, he did not yet know Brandon was dead. And perhaps he was not.
Some might argue the difficulty of lifting dead-weight, even a very small person. But, then again, as combat veterans know, with sufficient motivation, adrenaline can generate super-human strength.
Per our theoretical timeline, Jarius would make two briefs stops in Alabama before heading over the state line to Mississippi – one at Uncle Steve’s, looking for Damien, and then again at Bubba and Tonya’s to drop off the speakers. He planned to find a place in the Mississippi woods to dispose of Brandon’s body, hoping the extra distance would buy him some time.
Five days after the Brandon’s disappearance, county officials had arrived at the crime scene, having first been alerted by a local resident. Tragically, it was the young man’s severed head that had been found first, separated from the body which was about 30 yards deeper into the woods. Dr. Paul McGarry, a renowned Louisiana and Mississippi coroner, examined the scene and explained it was typical for feral dogs to “feed from the most damaged part of the body.” So, at least, it had been canines, rather than foul play, that had brought about decapitation. The doctor had exemplary qualifications, and his years of autopsy experience enabled him to ascertain cause-of-death, despite the damage, dismemberment, and deterioration. There was nothing controversial back then – his purpose was not to confirm or deny anyone’s future hypothesis, gunshot or otherwise. Although the neck would remain the most contentious aspect of the murder case, there was never a hesitation in the doctor’s diagnosis: “asphyxia, due to ligature strangulation.” No question.
McGarry’s testimony had first been taken by deposition, as he had originally doubted he could make the trial date. It was sufficient, if not ideal, but they had the MS coroner’s report, autopsy results, and death certificates. But then, as it turned out, McGarry had been able to show up in person and give testimony on the witness stand. Only one hitch: his testimony had been premature, and therefore at odds with the natural flow of the presentation. This anachronism would work to Whetstone’s advantage, and to Defense Attorney Willie Huntley’s disadvantage. The jury would be hearing forensic evidence far too soon in the process. By the time they’d heard the whole story, the impact of McGarry’s testimony would have been greatly diluted.
Introduced in the court as an acknowledged expert in his field, Dr. McGarry had been in practice for 40 years, having performed over 12,000 autopsies. It was encouraging that the court also officially accepted him as an expert in the State of Alabama. Having dealt with about 50 strangulations in his career, McGarry began to explain the damage to the neck area, the significance of hyoid bone, and to declare all conditions and circumstances indicative of strangulation-by-ligature.
Whetstone seems to verbally fidget, and cuts to the chase. He does not want to hear about strangulation, and cannot wait to start bending the arc of reason towards gunshot.
Q. “At the time that you did this autopsy, did you have any police investigation report, or any criminal investigation report that this young man you examined had been shot through the neck at another location other than what [sic] he was found?”
A. “No sir. I had nothing of that.”
The subject would be dropped, but brought back again, and again, and again. Willie Huntley, the defense attorney, would object to the gunshot theory every time. And Judge Wilters would overrule every time.
Another point-of-contention from the transcript: the autopsy by McGarry was not performed in a vacuum. Investigator Dean McGowan testified that he, as well as Sergeant John Stewart, and Officer Tony Fuqua were all present at the autopsy. McGowan had heard McGarry say, more than once, that it was strangulation.
Research shows that there are three different manners of death by asphyxia: hanging, ligature strangulation, and manual strangulation. Fracture of the hyoid bone happens in approximately 27% of judicial hangings, and about 50% of ligature or manual strangulations. Hyoid is U-shape bone that has three sections: the center body, and the two sets of wing-like cornu. It is the only bone in the body that is attached to muscles and ligaments, but no other bones. Forensic pathologists typically look for a fractured hyoid bone as evidence of strangulation.
When a ligature tightens around a victim’s neck, blood cannot pass between the heart and the brain, causing cerebral hypoxia – lack of oxygen. Although death by asphyxiation takes maybe ten minutes to occur, mercifully, the victim is usually unconscious within fifteen seconds.
Dr. Paul McGarry testifies, recounting his examination of the body at the crime scene:
Minor abrasions: There are a few scrapes, “one on the outer surface of his left knee… a few small abrasions on his forearms, and an abrasion on the knee and left shin.” They were all ante-mortem – that is to say, before death, or during the time of death. There were no signs of “defensive wounds” on Brandon’s arm, elbows, and hands – marks that might have indicated a frontal assault.
(Most people would still interpret these abrasions as “signs of a struggle,” and that Brandon “never saw it coming.” But no one declares this obvious point in verbal testimony.)
Appearance of the organs: With a fatal injury at the upper neck, there is blood in the stomach. The lungs are collapsed. Blood is staining the bones of the neck and base of the skull. These hemorrhages in the base of the skull, inside the cranial cavity are features of dying, due to the inability to breathe.
Blood in the stomach: Blood in the areas of the neck gets swallowed. Blood does not run down the esophagus to the stomach by gravity, it requires propulsion. Organs, in general, are dark, indicative of a lack of oxygen in a period of time prior to his death. And the hemorrhages in the basal bones of the skull are characteristic of respiratory impairment, he repeats. Blood in the stomach: Blood in the areas of the neck gets swallowed. Blood does not run down the esophagus to the stomach by gravity, it requires propulsion. Organs, in general, are dark, indicative of a lack of oxygen in a period of time prior to his death. And the hemorrhages in the basal bones of the skull are characteristic of respiratory impairment, he repeats.
Of course, Mr. Whetstone did not like hearing this solid forensic determination, as it did not match his desired outcome. So, he began a relentless campaign, pressing McGarry on the witness stand. The coroner maintained disagreement. No. It could not be gunshot.
Whetstone changed tactics, suggesting that the jury forget Brandon’s case for the moment. He suggests a “hypothetical.” What if McGarry were to perform some other random autopsy in which the hyoid bone had legitimately been shot out by a bullet? Would not the coroner expect to find the same type of visual?
There was tension in the room. It was obvious in the transcript that McGarry was being railroaded into an inaccurate interpretation, and the doctor continued to resist. A gunshot wound would have meant ignoring the corroborating presence of the collapsed lungs, dark blood in the organs, and the stains of cranial hemorrhaging. Besides, there was a linear quality to the wounds, a pattern directly corresponding to death-by-ligature. All his years of experience are in revolt. There is no damage to the skull, no evidence of bullet hole, no skull fracture. It is darkly fascinating that the court took time to acknowledge this doctor as an “expert” in State of Alabama, and then utterly dismissed his professional observations.
But Whetstone was relentless. He did not want accuracy; he wanted McGarry to agree with him. The badgering continued, and the prosecutor pursued every possible approach, changing the verbiage, switching a word or tweaking a nuance to get McGarry to agree.
Worn down and cornered at last, the doctor begrudgingly concedes that it “could have possibly been produced by (that) mechanism.” It was a mistake to give Whetstone a half-inch of validation, because then he would run a mile. From then on, no hypothetical ever existed in the testimony. To Whetstone, the theory of gunshot wound was now FACT. And yet, he would consistently fail to establish any supporting evidence.
DNA & fiber
DNA is not only sourced from blood, but can also be taken from hair, saliva, flakes of skin, semen, or any kind of bodily fluid. And although, of course, Brandon’s car contained his own DNA, and that of Jarius, but not one cell from Murray’s body, nor one fiber from his clothing or hair, were ever found in the car, or on any piece of evidence submitted to the court. One cannot test or evaluate a substance that does not exist.
Much like the lack of DNA, there is also a lack of fingerprints found on, or in, the Acura. A partial print or two belonging to Jarius were taken from inside the speaker mountings. Another partial print, belonging to Damien Heard, Jarius‘ half-brother, was found on a wheel cover. Damien had been in Panama City on the night of the murder, partying with yet another group of friends. But upon return, Jarius had brought him into the conspiracy. The following day, Monday, Damien would follow Jarius to the Port Authority in Mobile in another vehicle. Together, they would strip the Acura for parts, and transport them back to Fairhope in Damien’s car, abandoning the hull.
There are no witnesses who can place Murray anywhere in the vicinity of the crime on the night of the murder. Jarius is the only one who touts this myth. Yet, there were five people, alibi witnesses, who were able to definitively vouch for Murray’s whereabouts.
Later in the trial, Dean McGowan (Sergeant, Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office) would testify regarding the gun. When asked if he submitted Steadman gun to the lab for examination, he responded, “I don’t believe so, sir.” Next question: “So, you don’t know if any blood was found on it?” McGowan says, “I know there was no blood found on it.” When asked if the gun had been submitted to Alabama forensic lab for testing, he states, “I did not. No, sir. All I did was pick it up, and bring it back.” Therefore, beyond a “presumptive test for blood,” no additional tests were called for. Without a slug, or shell casing, or powder residue, there were no ballistics to test.
During the “Hoss” Mack testimony, Whetstone, says, “Your Honor, I have a few more questions for Mr. Mack. I forgot to introduce the bullets. I’ve got two types. One is hollow point, and one is full metal jacket. I don’t think there’s any testimony as to which one it is, but I’ll introduce either one of them.” Because these bullets were not ascribed a caliber, the comment was absurd, and out-of-context. It was as though Whetstone was offering the court a choice of ice cream flavors — depending on whatever suited their preference. Huntley responded by objecting that the “only bullet up for discussion is a 9mm.” Meandering discussion ensued without the judge making a ruling, and eventually Whetstone withdrew the question.
Trunk liner & blood
OK, so then where’s the blood? According to Jarius, “there was blood everywhere.” But if Bubba shot Brandon, and his body was put in the trunk, face-down, with a neck or head wound, wouldn’t the blood have still drained, even if not being pushed by a beating heart? The trunk liner had been recovered when Officers David White and Tony Fuqua had accompanied Jarius to revisit the dump site in Mississippi in October 2003. But – Lieutenant “Hoss” Mack had testified that he had recovered the trunk liner, and had personally “(taken) it out of the car, and initialed it.” How could the case rely heavily on one of two supposed pieces of blood-evidence when neither contains a single drop of blood?
Within the testimony of Lieutenant “Hoss” Mack, the following scene plays out:
COURT: “Where is the liner?”
WITNESS (Mack): In the evidence locker.
MR. WHETSTONE: In Robertsdale, Your Honor. It’s on its way up. But I think we need to think about whether or not that liner can come into evidence. I think Mr. Huntley may have some kind of thought pattern on that. I think it was tested and I don’t think any blood was found. MR. HUNTLEY: That might change things dramatically.
MR. WHETSTONE: Yeah. Because I don’t want the jury to believe that the thing that had the blood on it is not available. They’ll think ‘no wonder there’s no blood.’ So it’s kind of a tough call on Mr. Huntley. So I’ll do whatever he wants me to do. (Author’s note: WHAT?)
COURT: Who was the officer that picked it up? Was it Fuqua and David White?
MR. HUNTLEY: Judge, that’s the problem, because they said this was the one they picked up…which is State’s Evidence No. – I think it’s 30.
MR. WHETSTONE: And I thought it was. Apparently, they didn’t make any argument. The only person who knows it ain’t, is Jarius, and he’s accurate. (Author’s note: HUH?)
MR. HUNTLEY: I went on two occasions to look at the evidence, and both times, this was there, and it was represented to me that this was the panel.
The judge ordered them to bring up the trunk liner when it arrived, and the court went into recess. When they reconvened, Huntley said that the lack of blood should be seen as exculpatory evidence, and that because of the “improper handling of this piece of evidence,” that “the whole trial may be tainted.” Huntley requests: “the Court should dismiss the case on that basis.”
MR.WHETSTONE: Your Honor, I don’t think there’s any grounds for dismissal of the case.
The verbal game of ping-pong continued for seven additional pages in the transcript. The “first trunk liner” vs. the “second trunk liner” was discussed ad nauseum – and various excuses emerged about where evidence was kept, and where it had to be moved so as not to disrupt an unrelated “meeting in the conference room.”
The discussion was utterly inane, and remained unresolved, because neither trunk liner went beyond the “presumptive test” for blood. Why? Because there was absolutely no blood to test.
(Will the real trunk liner please stand up and be recognized by the court?)
PART FIVE - “Forced Consensus”
What is the Voir Dire? Literally, it means to “speak the truth.” It is the process used to select a fair and impartial jury. Each potential juror is questioned by both the prosecutor and the defense attorney in order to determine their suitability for jury service.
Right out of the gate, during Voir Dire, Whetstone sought to establish consensus with the jury on a number of issues. These were to be the platforms upon which the trial will be based – akin to setting up the rules of a game. As listed below, it often sounds as though there might be choices afforded to the jury, possible variations in procedure, certain things that could be handled in a different way. Theoretically, the jury could interrupt, and ask for explanations. (What effect might each of these options have on the trial? How might it affect the defendant, and the final verdict?) But Whetstone maintained dominance of his bully-pulpit, and kept talking. There was no pause afforded to the jury in which to make a response. So their lack of interruption would be interpreted as “silent, uncontested acquiescence.”
First consensus: Whetstone asserted that “drugs, drug-dealing, and obtaining money for drugs” comprised part of the motive for killing the victim. He speaks of Murray’s friends, and asks what “the group” had been doing when “they” killed this young man. (“They?“) He makes reference to Murray as being the “ringleader,” with zero substance to this allegation. (“Ringleader” of what?) But Whetstone knows that if he can get jurors to accept this false premise, it will be key to Whetstone’s prosecutorial pretentions.
Willie Huntley, Murray’s defense attorney, countered that “drug activity” was a separate issue, and this was a murder trial. (It would be handled be the Narcotics team.) Despite the fact that his comment was spot-on, it was ignored, and it would not be the only occasion. Throughout the trial, Willie would make six separate objections – all of which would be overruled, except one “sustain,” which would be later neutralized.
(Mr. Huntley is African-American. Does that matter? Did it matter that, out of twelve jurors, eleven of them were white? Was it coincidental that the twelfth juror, the African-American, was eliminated on a technicality after the first few days?)
Second consensus: “Would anyone hold me to a higher standard of proving the case, other than what the State of Alabama requires?” This might have seemed like a insubstantial question, if one did not detect the hidden agenda. But IF Whetstone sought to distinguish and set a particular standard, then procedure should have been halted until the jury was educated on the specific features of each standard, and the finer points of implementation. But the jury did not have enough knowledge of jurisprudence to ask the question.
Third consensus: “Is there anyone in the jury that would vote for murder, no matter what? If the judge said (you’ve) got to consider mitigating circumstances… (you) would always go murder, no matter the mitigation?” The fascinating Freudian slip here was that Whetstone used the word “murder,” when referencing the death penalty. Perhaps he should have used the term “capital punishment,” and maybe also the word “justice?”
Fourth consensus: “Does anyone feel it’s necessary for Murray to take the witness stand to tell his side of the story? Does anyone believe that, in order to find him not guilty, if the state does not prove it, and he does not take the stand?” Again, the jury did not have the legal wherewithal to understand the ramifications of Murray testifying, or not testifying. Whetstone still dominated the narrative, and they did not want to interrupt him. Therefore, nobody spoke up to ask.
And, just like that, Murray would have NO say, whatsoever, in his own defense. Unimaginable. When Jarius got on the stand and gave mendacious testimony against his “best friend,” Mr. Huntley would furnish Murray headphones, and music, so he did not have to listen to his life being shredded by the appalling lies. (Reading Jarius’ testimony in the court transcript is like being asked to be a spectator at an abattoir on slaughtering day.)
Fifth consensus: Would jurors give more, or less, weight to Jarius’ testimony, knowing that he was going to testify in exchange for benefit or reward? This question was particularly mind-numbing. How could anyone take seriously the testimony of a murderer who will say anything to save his own neck?
Sixth Consensus: Would jurors feel that the testimony of “alibi witnesses” (people who have relationships with the defendant) would provide more or less weight in the believability of their testimony?
In each case, the prosecutor ran through the consensus-seeking checklist in a perfunctory manner to the whole group of jurors. He rarely sought individual answers, but instead, indulged in the presumption of compliance, going from one topic to the next, without pause. The only exception was the topic of firearm ownership, in which he painstakingly questioned, and got, individual answers from every single juror.
For the discriminating mind, this was a foreboding of things to come. Glossing over the consensus-seeking issues would surely create dire repercussions during closing arguments. One could just imagine Whetstone saying:
In preparation to begin actual testimony, the manner in which Whetstone interacted with the jury was comparable to the relationship between new asphalt and a steam roller. His remarks were so garbled and contrary – such a study in paradoxical thinking – one wonders if temperance is in question.
Direct from the transcript, Whetstone states:
“We’ve got three crime scenes: Foley, Mobile, and Mississippi. You’ve got multiple agencies. Lots of them. You’re going to have people come in here that they are not going to remember times and dates. There’s going to be a reason for that, some of them are on drugs during this period of time. They’re going to get some dates mixed up. Wait. Wait, until it all connects…
“Lawyer’s position on this is to present evidence. The judge determines whether it’s admissible and the jury determines what it means, what the facts are. But don’t believe what the lawyer says is the evidence. The evidence will come from what someone says in here, or what this judge lets in from physical evidence… “Don’t think that what the lawyer says is evidence.
“…We think a forensic scientist will tell his jury, by deposition, from Mississippi that he thought he was strangled. No evidence of a gunshot. And that’s going to become real important. Because forensic scientist – when the body was found – was so deteriorated, there was no evidence of gunshot, no bullet. But some people knew there was a gunshot. Some people knew there was a gun involved. And we think it’s going to be Bubba and we think it’s going to be Big Bubba. You’re going to hear evidence of a gun, and we’re going to connect the dots about how a gun was used.”
Even while trying to sound superficially ambivalent, Whetstone was actively influencing the jurors, planting subtle seeds of deceit. He was setting precedent that the drug-offensive was going to be his best friend, and it was never too soon to start. Within the same paragraph, he was offering up the strangulation theory for all of ten seconds, before disqualifying its feasibility or provability based on deterioration of the body, and the hearsay of “somebody knew there was a gunshot.” Apparently, Whetstone preferred litigation as a zero-sum game.
A few pages later in the transcript, Whetstone would postulate, “We believe that they took this young man (Brandon) after he was shot – and you’ll have evidence to support it – put him in the trunk of a car and drove – there was two cars. It took two people to do this. At least two. And drove him to Tonya Mixon’s house in the trunk and then drove to Mississippi. Then came back.
What is wrong with the above paragraph? Everything. 1) Brandon was not shot. 2) They would find no corroborating evidence. 3) Two cars were not used, 4) Nor did two people go to Mississippi. Whetstone had told the jury “not to believe the lawyer, but rather the evidence.” Then immediately he puts forth these baseless theories, other than to fulfill his personal agenda.
Whetstone continued to speak:
“Do we have a gun that we can match? No. In order to have a gun you can match, you’ve got to have a bullet. You’ve got to have a cartridge that was found. And you’ll see that there’s no gun. But you’re going to have evidence of a gun before you, that people saw a gun. And a gun was delivered to the Fairhope Police Department. A gun that we believe the evidence will show killed that little fellow in Foley, Alabama.”
Seriously? If an opposing attorney were to have said the same thing, this same prosecutor would have stood up and shouted. “Objection! Hearsay.”
PART SIX - “Immunity Lies”
“A felony conviction cannot be had on the testimony of an accomplice, unless corroborated by other evidence, tending to connect the defendant with the commission of the offense. And such corroborative evidence – if it merely shows the commission of the offense, or the circumstances thereof – is not sufficient.”
JOHN DAVID WHETSTONE, ESQUIRE
May 13, 2005
Mr. Whetstone had commenced his prosecution with an astounding paradox regarding Jarius: he had “made a deal with the devil.” Then, before testimonies had even started, Whetstone perversely declared that Jarius was “going to lie, and lie, and lie,” challenging the jury to believe these two opposing concepts could co-exist. Despite Jarius’ deserved conviction in the murder of Brandon Hastings, the attorney had promised him a reduced sentence in exchange for his “truthful testimony” against Murray. Likewise, Whetstone had promised immunity to several additional witnesses, but it would be “Whetstone’s truth,” or else. It would be pure coercion, if the witnesses wanted to retain their freedom. The two subpoenaed women, Murray’s girlfriend, Tonya Mixson, and her friend, Stacey Giambrone, were “interviewed” several times by an all-male team of interrogators, no female officers present. They were intimidated, screamed at, and heavily traumatized by the experience, simply because they’d been unwilling recipients in the chain of stolen goods. The speakers from Brandon’s Acura had first been foisted upon Tonya by being deposited on the front porch, then stashed in her bedroom, despite vigorous protest. Later, those same speakers were supposed to be mounted in Stacey’s vehicle, who also protested. Whetstone had threatened to prosecute both Tonya and Stacey for “receipt of stolen goods,” even though neither had committed the crime. On the contrary, they had both become its victim.
Despite the fact that the speakers had been a major focal point throughout of the case, ironically, they were never recovered nor entered into evidence.
Also subpoenaed, Damien Heard, Jarius’ half-brother, was actually guilty of substantial involvement after-the-fact. He had helped Jarius strip Brandon’s car, and then taken part in fencing the stolen goods. Intimidated by the threat of major felony conviction, Damien was likewise coerced into testifying, per Whetstone’s “truth,” in exchange for immunity.
Other witnesses were subpoenaed, but never called to the stand. Debra Fudge, a fellow employee at Bebo’s, would have been critical to the case, as she had been the last person to see Brandon alive, other than Jarius. If given the opportunity, she would have testified to having seen an African-America man in the front passenger’s seat of the Acura at approximately 1:30 AM – just a half hour before Brandon would be murdered. Later, Debra Fudge would even successfully pick Jarius out of a police line-up. But that, like so much else, had been ignored.
Lastly, there was Fairhope Officer Wendell Thomas, who had the critical 5:01AM CDT time-stamp of the traffic stop. Had he been called to the stand, he could have corroborated the alibi witness status of John Wayne Mixson and Crystal Curtis. One can only conclude that the prosecutor had been very selective in “shopping” for witnesses, calling only those who would support his preconceived outcome. This would be a clear violation of Brady vs. Maryland, which states that exculpatory evidence shall not be suppressed or withheld.
Aside from the traffic stop incident, John Wayne Mixson could have given his own first-hand account of having seen Murray at approximately 4:30 AM. But, as Mixson was already involved in another legal case, he was directed by his attorney, John Beck, to plead the 5th to anything that was asked. Indeed, he released only his name and address. It would be discovered later that John Beck had been Jarius’ defense attorney in the original 2003 case. Therefore, if John Wayne Mixson had testified, there would have been exposure of contradictory testimony that Jarius had most certainly committed the crime alone – before anyone could have dreamed-up, and reverse-engineered, the fairy-tale of Murray’s involvement.
As the case neared its conclusion, Mr. Whetstone still had nothing – despite all claims that he would produce proof of Murray’s guilt. The following passage, taken directly from the transcript, sums it up nicely. Defense attorney, Mr. Willie Huntley, cross-examined Officer Anthony Fuqua of the Foley Police Department.
Q. Did you have any fingerprints of Bubba Lawrence? A. Not to my knowledge, no.
Q. Did you get any stolen property from Bubba Lawrence? A. I didn’t personally, no.
Q. And you don’t know of anything coming from — any of that stolen property coming from Bubba Lawrence, do you? A. Not to my knowledge, no.
Q. And you didn’t have anybody tell you that Bubba Lawrence was the last person seen with Brandon Hastings? A. No.
Q. You didn’t have any fingerprints? A. No.
Q. Didn’t have any kind of weapon? A. No.
Q. And any (of) his cell phone records of Bubba Lawrence that connected him with Brandon Hastings, did you? A. No, sir.
The truth was, there was nothing to connect Bubba Lawrence to Brandon Hastings, except that they were both friends with Jarius McNeil. Therefore, as a defense attorney, even Mr. Huntley hadn’t been overly concerned about the outcome of the trial; the lack of real evidence was far too glaring. And yet, Whetstone persisted. Again, he talked about the forensic evidence, all of which led to the conclusion of strangulation, then used circular logic to insist cause-of-death was gun-shot. The prosecutor insisted that it could not have been ligature strangulation because “there was no rope.” Yet, throughout the entire trial, no focus goes to the jumper cables. The simplest and most-likely murder weapon had been entered into evidence, yet never tested for DNA. The jumper cables had been sitting there, all along, right under their noses.
It has been said that “a prosecutor’s job is not to win, but to make sure the right result still occurs.” And one might have even retained hope for some honor and integrity in these excerpted words from Whetstone’s closing arguments – ironically, enumerating all the reasons why the defendant should have been acquitted:
“The defendant is presumed, as a matter of evidence, to be innocent. When part, or all of the evidence relied upon, by the prosecution, is circumstantial, the chain of circumstances must be so complete, and of such character as to convince you to be beyond the reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty…. Evidence must be strong and cogent… If circumstantial evidence permits an inference consistent with innocence, it will not support a conviction… If the evidence is sufficient to show a guilty action by some person, and someone other than the defendant, or a number of persons may be shown with equal reason, and logic to have committed the guilty act, then circumstantial evidence would be subject to a reasonable hypothesis, consistent with the innocence of the accused, and it would not be sufficient evidence upon which to convict the defendant.”
And yet, despite this coherent paragraph, the transcript then shows Whetstone’s descent into an unhinged, non-sensical rant:
“It is about drugs. It is about drugs. You’ve got this unemployed king-of-the-hill in Fairhope, Alabama, and he is using drugs as a manner of manipulation. He’s a supplier of drugs. And people come to him for drugs. And he’s unemployed. And he’s got to have money. He’s got to have money to pay for those drugs. And he’s got to have money to take back to the drug dealers in Mobile. The motive of this case is this is a drug dealer that needed that money for drugs, and he also needed to kill him for another reason. He is the leader of the pack.”
Whetstone continues: “If you’re ever gonna be big Bubba (referring to Murray Lawrence, Sr.), you got to start off with little Bubba. And I’m going to tell you the way a big leader does it, he does something so awful, it scares everybody else. Is it consistent with his personality? You betcha. You betcha. Why do you think the State of Alabama went to great lengths to show you who is the toughest? We did that to show you his personality as best we can. ‘I got your bitch in my pocket. It’s a gun. And I’m going to shoot it tomorrow. I’m not afraid to kill — kill a person with this.’ How many witnesses did you hear say that? More than one. More than one. You’ve got a man that’s threatening to kill. He’s threatening to kill because he wants to be the big guy. I want to be the king. I’ll show you. He sparks fear in people’s hearts. It’s coward of the county.”
At the beginning of the trial, Whetstone had decided he wanted Murray Lawrence, Jr. to be found guilty of shooting Brandon Hastings. Then he had carefully worked backwards to retroactively reconstruct every aspect of contrived reality in order to support the conclusion. And yet, although Whetstone had failed in every argument, the badgered and bullied jury seemed to capitulate out of sheer exhaustion.
But the travesty was not yet finished. In regard to the verdict, it was bizarre to hear the way in which it was rendered. One would think it might have been worded as follows:
THE COURT: “The Defendant, Murray Lawrence, Jr, has been charged with capital murder, intentionally killing Gary Brandon Hastings, during robbery in the first degree. How do you find the Defendant?
Foreperson of Jury: “Guilty (or not guilty,) Your Honor.”
But, in this case, the verdict was already “pre-worded” by Judge Robert Wilters, and all the foreperson or jury needed to do was confirm.
THE COURT: “Is this your verdict? We, the jury, find the Defendant, Murray Lawrence, Jr, guilty of capital murder, intentionally killing Gary Brandon Hastings, during robbery in the first degree as charged in the indictment and as signed Richard McKibbon, foreperson?
The Jurors: “Yes, sir.”
(It was only astonishing that they did not salute as well…)
McNeil successfully avoided the death penalty by betraying his “best friend” – in fact, he got one step better than “Life, Without Parole.” Instead, he was rewarded: “Life, With Possibility of Parole.” Jarius Andre McNeil – AIS 00241495
Conversely, Murray was framed as co-conspirator and literal “trigger man.” Lawrence was imprisoned with a harsher sentence: “Life Without Possibility of Parole.” Murray G. Lawrence, Jr. – AIS 00241380
So, how does this story end, now that Murray Lawrence, Jr. has been imprisoned for 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit? That depends on you, the good people of Alabama – you, the citizens of the United States of America, and you, the humanitarians of the world – all coming together in solidarity against injustice. You will write the ending, and here’s how:
First of all, go to the website https://deal-with-the-devil.com and sign the petition. Future updates will be posted on the site and on The Ripp Report, which has been a leading advocacy group for Murray Lawrence for the past three years. The public is invited to contact these entities, in order to participate in the advocacy effort.
Secondly, you can write Murray to give him emotional support.
Murray “Bubba” Lawrence, Jr. ASI # 00241380 William C. Holman Correctional Facility 1240 Ross Rd, Atmore, AL 36502
Then you can write to the Office of the Attorney General, Steve Marshall, and Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey.
Contribute to Murray’s Spotfund page at https://spot.fund/7p2k2se which will directly benefit Murray and his legal expenses in his quest for freedom.
NOTE: The public is advised that there will be more developments as this case continues to unfold. Even now, more evidence of innocence within additional documents is already beginning to surface. Ultimately, Murray’s story is destined to be a feature documentary, exposing an inept and corrupt judicial system.