NEWS- Elusive conclusion: Powell gets time-- but not for murder
With last week's sentencing of Ronald Powell for perjury, a sad chapter in Charlottesville history has come to a close. Two men are behind bars for their connection to the 2004 death of an 18-year-old mother in a Charlottesville trailer park. But it was the witness, not the man authorities believe was the killer, who got the harsher sentence.
Powell's two-year sentence for lying under oath indicates that no one has been– or likely ever will be– convicted for the murder of Azlee Keller Hickman. Prosecutors say despite the lack of a murder conviction, they know how Hickman died– and who killed her.
"We believe William Franklin Marshall to be the killer of Azlee Hickman," says Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman.
Marshall, nicknamed "Billy," was originally charged with second-degree murder. Prosecutors theorized the 38-year-old tow-truck driver strangled the teenage Hickman in Sunrise Court trailer park on Carlton Avenue on March 13, 2004. However, he received just a one-year sentence for being an accessory after the fact in Hickman's death.
Powell was a key witness at Marshall's preliminary hearing and testified he'd been in the trailer the night Hickman died, but that he hadn't seen what happened to Hickman, the mother of his child. Marshall, he allegedly told investigators, came out of the bedroom and said he'd "hurt" the young woman.
Powell said he, Marshall, and Powell's then-17-year-old daughter, Heather Martin, left the trailer and drove around to create an alibi, leaving Hickman's baby daughter alone with her dead or dying mother. They returned later and feigned surprise at finding Hickman's body, according to Chapman.
When Marshall's case went to trial, however, Powell's testimony about his trailer-mate unexpectedly changed– with devastating implications for the prosecution.
Instead of saying he had waited outside the bedroom, "He described being in that room in fairly close physical proximity to where he said Marshall had his hands around Miss Hickman's throat," says Chapman, who adds that he was stunned by the sudden change in Powell's story.
Powell's new version included Marshall "with a knife in one hand, brandishing it" at Powell, who said on the stand he had been afraid for himself and for his own infant daughter, who was also in the room.
Chapman says Powell's changing account dealt a major blow to the prosecution's case against Marshall.
"Anytime a witness, especially one whose observations are central to the resolution of the case, has previously offered differing testimony under oath, they're immediately subject to impeachment on that," he says. "It's potentially devastating, unless effectively and adequately explained."
Powell's explanation– that he'd been fighting for custody of his daughter at the time of the preliminary hearing and wanted to distance himself from the crime– wasn't enough to convince the jury they should believe his new testimony. They deadlocked at the March 2006 trial with seven favoring conviction and five for acquittal.
Chapman says interviews with jurors persuaded him that a new trial– with the "fundamental impediment" of Ronald Powell's ruined credibility– would likely have the same outcome.
Prosecutors were forced to make a decision: retry Marshall or settle for his plea to a lesser charge, rendering future prosecution impossible under the Constitutional protection against "double jeopardy," which prohibits someone from being tried twice for the same crime.
As for the possibility of charging Powell with being an accessory after the fact in Hickman's death, Chapman says that, too, would have been difficult, given the dearth of evidence against him. He points out no law requires someone to call for help, even if they see a person is mortally wounded who could be saved by medical care. In addition, he says, even in murder cases, being an accessory after the fact is a misdemeanor considered no more serious than being an accessory after the fact in a lesser crime such as shoplifting.
"It's flabbergasting," says Chapman, who believes the law should be changed so that helping to cover up a murder would be treated more harshly than, say, helping to hide a stolen flashlight.
"There should be a broad range of punishment so a wide variety of circumstances can be adequately addressed," he says.
Delegate Rob Bell says the topic has been discussed in the General Assembly, but he insists that being an accessory after the fact in any crime is rare, and particularly in murder cases.
"In most circumstances, you'd find something more serious that the person had done," Bell says, citing charges such as obstruction of justice and being an accessory to a crime before it's committed, both of which are felonies.
Chapman points out that although Marshall's guilty plea carried a maximum one-year sentence, he was on probation at the time of the crime for a 1998 arson conviction and had seven years of his previous sentence reinstated.
Hickman, who grew up in a privileged family, suffered an array of setbacks including the death of her stepmother in an automobile accident. She dropped out of the Covenant School when she became pregnant by Powell, but was getting her life back together, an aunt told the Hook two years ago. The teen earned her GED and was hoping to become a nurse. She'd planned to move out of the trailer she shared with Powell the day after she died.
Following Hickman's death, her daughter, now four years old, was placed with relatives. Hickman's family members did not return the Hook's calls for comment for this story.
Chapman says he's glad both Powell and Marshall are behind bars, but there's no question in his mind that justice was not served and never will be.
"We were unable to attain the goals we set out," he says. "It doesn't get any worse than this."