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Man sentenced to 20 years in fatal accident
Emotions run high in courtroom
Friday, April 26, 2013
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
An emotionally charged atmosphere erupted into a commotion Thursday in Martinsville Circuit Court as members of two families sought to cope with a tragedy.
The incident occurred after Martinsville Circuit Court Judge G. Carter Greer sentenced James Benjamin Hairston to 20 years in prison in connection with the death of Melissa Renee Jackson.
Hairston, 33, of Martinsville, pleaded guilty in January to aggravated involuntary manslaughter in the March 24, 2012, incident.
Words were exchanged by people on both sides of the case, with several talking at different times and at elevated levels before Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar raised her voice to be heard above the din.
“Bailiffs, will you please take charge of this courtroom and get these people out of here,” she said after several members of both families created a bottleneck in front of the doors in the courtroom.
Bailiffs quickly directed members of one family out of the courtroom and tried to keep members of the other family from leaving to try and calm the situation.
“My family’s out there,” said one man, who was among those remaining inside the courtroom. “I need to get to my family.”
Additional officers from the Martinsville Sheriff’s Office, the Martinsville Police Department and the Martinsville Fire & EMS also responded to the courtroom and in the hallway, as did Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper, Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers, Martinsville Fire Marshal/Building Official Ted Anderson and Property Maintenance Inspector Andy Powers.
Officers also flocked to the front of the Municipal Building and down the sidewalk, as patrol officers in vehicles rolled up to the Bridge Street Parking Lot until the crowd had dispersed.
According to testimony, Hairston had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana before he climbed behind the wheel of a Chrysler 300 and sped on a wet road on March 24, 2012. The vehicle left East Church Street and slid more than 100 feet before becoming wrapped in a “u-shape” around a utility pole, according to testimony.
Jackson, 38, of Callands, died at the scene, according to testimony.
Her spine was broken and she “was basically beheaded in that car,” Ziglar said.
when Ziglar said that, Jackson’s mother and many other family members started sobbing. The mother had to be led from the courtroom.
Jackson trusted Hairston “to love her enough ... to take care of her ... to get them home safely,” Ziglar said. But “when the car came to rest, bent in a ‘U’ on that utility pole, he was okay. But he did nothing to see if she was okay,” Ziglar said. Hairston’s injuries “consisted of broken bones. Bones heal,” she added.
Martinsville Police Officer Ben Peters testified, and Ziglar also commented, that Hairston was belligerent and uncooperative at the scene of the crash, that he declined to alert emergency workers or law enforcement officers that Jackson was in the car, identify her body after it was discovered or otherwise try to help her.
With Hairston’s foot wedged between the brake and gas pedal, he was coherent enough to ask witnesses and others at the scene to not notify police, Ziglar said. At the same time, Jackson’s body “was basically wedged under him,” she added.
Defense attorney Christine Slate asked Peters, who investigated the crash, if it was true that Hairston suffered a head injury in the crash, was intoxicated, “bleeding profusely” and in pain at the scene.
Peters answered all questions affirmatively. Considering the circumstances, Peters also said it was not surprising that Hairston did not recall the events of the crash after he woke up in the hospital.
At Hairstson’s preliminary hearing in August 2012, forensic toxicologist Dr. David Burrows testified that Hairston’s blood alcohol content was 0.20, and 0.05 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active ingredient in marijuana) was found during toxicology tests.
In August, Hairston was found guilty in a lower court of driving under the influence and driving suspended in connection with the incident.
At Thursday’s sentencing, the court also heard letters that had been written and read by family members.
Nichole Fountain, Jackson’s niece, read the first letter that she said was written by Jackson’s 17-year-old daughter.
The teenager stated that she had a “loving, caring family ... I knew they all had my back ... Life was glorious” before her mother was killed.
Fountain also read that Hairston and Melissa Jackson shared a long and tumultuous relationship.
The teen wrote that “I will always live as if my mother is riding on my shoulder every day, guiding me,” Fountain said. “My only wish is for justice to be served.”
Jacqueline Fountain, one of Jackson’s sisters, also wrote and read a statement about the impact Jackson’s death has had on her and many of the remaining family members.
“Life for me froze that moment” when she learned that Jackson had died, she said. “I find myself going to her grave daily” to try to cope with the life-changing tragedy, Jacqueline Fountain said.
Because much of the contents were repetitious, Greer did not allow a third letter to be read in court. However, Hairston, Greer and the attorneys read it.
In a letter to Jackson’s family, Hairston said he had “no words to let you know how much grief and sorrow” are in his heart and soul.
Before handing down the sentence, Greer said there are four basic reasons to impose punishment: As a deterrent, to rehabilitate, incapacitate or “punishment as punishment,” Greer said. That reason “is significant in this case,” he said.
In addition to the 20-year sentence, two years of a suspended sentence on a previous conviction were revoked and will run concurrently with the 20-year term, Greer said. He also sentenced Hairston to three years on probation and “good behavior for life.”