Misdemeanor plea in Hickman killing
There's no dispute that Azlee Keller Hickman was murdered in a Carlton Avenue mobile home in March 2003. But despite witnesses testifying that they saw William Franklin "Billy" Marshall assault her the night she died, prosecutors have been unable to pin her death on anyone. Yesterday, the Commonwealth accepted a misdemeanor plea from Marshall that he was an accessory after the fact in the strangling death of the 18-year-old Hickman. He faces a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The decision was a hard one, says Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman.
"Pleading someone to a misdemeanor in a murder case makes me sick," says Chapman. "It's completely deflating and demoralizing on behalf of Miss Hickman's family, who have endured throughout this process knowing the strength and weakness of the cases. To be unable at this juncture to have held everyone fully accountable for their behavior is an extreme disappointment to the Commonwealth."
Though prosecutors had initially charged Marshall with second degree murder, Chapman says the evidence was scant enough that "reasonable doubt" could exist. And in fact, Marshall's first trial, in March 2006, ended in mistrial. According to an article in today's Daily Progress, jurors were hung with seven favoring a guilty verdict and five favoring acquittal.
As part of the plea, Marshall cannot be tried again for Hickman's murder under the Constituttional principal of "double jeopardy," which prohibits trying an individual for the same crime twice.
Marshall may well end up serving more time than just a year, however. Convicted of arson in April 1998 in Albemarle County, Marshall has as nearly 7 years probation left. It's a fact that hasn't escaped Chapman.
"We have already taken steps to bring to the attention of his probation officer and Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney his behavior in relation to the events surrounding the death of Azlee Keller Hickman," says Chapman, "and his participation with others in a cover up for a period of five months."
The plea also leaves open the possibility that charges could be lodged against others in Hickman's death.
Among possible alternate suspects: Ronald Powell (the father of Hickman's now three-year-old daughter), and Powell's daughter, Heather Martin. According to the Progress, both Powell and Martin testified that they were present in the trailer the night of Hickman's death, and that they witnessed Marshall attacking Hickman. Both also testified that they and Marshall later drove around town to establish an alibi, according to the Progress.
So why haven't Powell or Martin been charged with anything then?
Chapman repeats the essence of his comments made yesterday in court.
"One should not conclude that yesterday's case was a statement about the limits of Marshall's participation," says Chapman. "We're keeping an open mind to charge one or more other people."
According to the Progress, Powell unleashed a "bombshell" in court yesterday: that Marshall had threatened him with a knife after Hickman's death. It was the first time investigators or prosecutors had heard the allegations.
In court, according to the Progress, Chapman suggested Powell's changing story might have led to Marshall's plea.
“In light of the insight we’ve gained into the perspective on the evidence and in light of the careful analysis of Mr. Powell’s input, we came to a position that these were not circumstances under which we could make use of his testimony,” Chapman said.
Amongg the evidence the prosecution does have: DNA collected from under Hickman's fingernails could not have come from either Powell or Martin. Marshall, however, could not be ruled out, and he had a scratch on his face that was never adequately explained.
Marshall's attorney suggested that Powell fathered a child with Hickman when she was a minor, and therefore might have had his own motive for killing her.
Chapman says the case is not over, and he won't rest until he's done everything he can to bring Azlee's killer or killers to justice.
"Our goal," says Chapman, "is to hold everyone in this matter responsible for their behavior to the extent they were a participant."