Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
Toll Free: 800-234-6575
Two enter pleas in death
2010 BG's Express slaying
Monday, August 25, 2014
By AMANDA ALDERMAN - Bulletin Staff Writer
Less than 24 hours before their trial on murder charges was set to begin this morning in Henry County Circuit Court, two men entered Alford pleas Sunday night in connection with a 2010 convenience store slaying.
With an Alford plea, a defendant doesn’t admit guilt but acknowledges that the commonwealth may have enough evidence to convict.
Attorneys for Dominique Qumain Hylton, 24, and his brother, Montreal Rashawn Kent, 21, said their clients maintain their innocence but decided they did not want to risk going to trial.
“There was risk on both sides” for the commonwealth and the defense, said Rocky Mount attorney David Furrow, who represented Hylton. “Our client didn’t want to face the risk of life in prison, and (the commonwealth) didn’t want the risk of a not guilty verdict.”
The unusual Sunday night hearing was held to avoid having to call 90 potential jurors and numerous witnesses to court today, the judge said.
Hylton and Kent, who each appeared in court Sunday wearing orange Henry County Jail uniforms, entered the pleas in connection with the May 28, 2010, robbery and shooting at BG’s Express #2 in Chatham Heights.
That night, three men entered the store with their faces covered. Nirmal Singh, who was 57 and a clerk at the store, was shot and killed, and William Thomas, who did janitorial work there, was injured.
The Henry County Sheriff’s Office initially charged Hylton, Kent and a third man, Steven O’Neal Porter, with first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, robbery and other charges in connection with the case.
The murder charge against Porter was dropped in December 2011 when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery and two related charges as part of an agreement with the prosecution. Porter was sentenced to eight years of active prison time and 57 years suspended.
According to a summary of evidence presented in court Sunday night by Henry County Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Nester, Porter would have testified that he and Hylton were together in Bassett on May 27, 2010. After smoking “copious amounts of marijuana” that day, they decided to rob a store, Nester said.
Porter and Hylton drove to Clearview, where they picked up Kent, who brought with him a 30/30 high-powered rifle and a small-caliber pistol, Nester said. Kent kept the pistol and passed the rifle to Hylton, according to Porter’s account, Nester said.
Security footage taken from the store showed three men, each covered nearly “head to toe” in hoodies and bandannas, entering BG’s late on May 27 or just after midnight May 28, Nester said. One was carrying a rifle, one a pistol and the third what appeared to be a metal pipe, he said.
Almost as soon as they walked into the store, the two men with guns began shooting, Nester said. Thomas, who was 78 at the time, was hit in the abdomen. He managed to get to a back room, where he locked himself inside.
Singh remained in the store, where he was hit by shots from both the pistol and the rifle, Nester said.
The man with the pistol went behind the store counter, where he stole cigarettes and cigars, Nester said. The man did not take any cash from the register, Nester told the court.
While the man with the pistol was behind the counter, the man with the rifle was “walking around the store essentially hunting down Nirmal Singh as if he was some sort of wild animal,” Nester said. Singh was shot a total of seven times, including a final shot to the head from about five feet that severed Singh’s carotid and jugular vein and killed him, according to Nester’s account.
“The video of this is absolutely horrific,” Nester said. “ ... You can see on the video as he bleeds out and passes away.”
The man with the club did not hit anyone, Nester added.
All three men fled the store on foot, he said.
According to Nester’s account, the break in the case came when a woman called Crimestoppers and told police that she had spoken with Kent, who told her that he was one of the men at the store that night and shared details of what happened. Her information also helped lead police to Porter, Nester said.
Investigators interviewed Porter about the crime three times. He denied involvement the first two times but changed his story after speaking with his mother and girlfriend, who “read him the riot act,” Nester said.
Porter then confessed to being the man with the pipe, Nester said. He told investigators that Kent carried the pistol and Hylton the rifle, Nester said.
Hylton was arrested on an unrelated charge in the city and also was interviewed about the BG’s case. He initially denied involvement but later said he had been there that night as a lookout, according to Nester’s account. Hylton said he never entered the store but identified Kent, Porter and a third man he called “White Mike” as the perpetrators, the prosecutor said.
Police identified “White Mike” but did not believe he was involved, said Nester.
The jury also would have heard recorded phone conversations between Hylton and his then girlfriend in which they discussed alibis for the night of the slaying, Nester said. At one point, Hylton seemed to cry and said something to the effect of “Steve planned everything,” Nester said.
Despite numerous tests, no physical evidence linking any of the three men to the scene was found, Nester said. He also told the judge that the security footage was not good enough to identify any of the men involved.
That lack of physical evidence was one of several things the defense would have pointed out in trying to convince jurors to acquit, according to Furrow and Vikram Kapil of Greensboro, N.C., who represented Kent. Kapil told the judge that the defense hired investigators who interviewed a separate witness who would have testified that the rifle used in the slaying was hers and that she knew who carried out the crime. She would have testified that neither Kent nor Hylton was involved, Kapil said.
They also would have called expert witnesses to address Hylton’s confession, which Furrow and Kapil said was made under pressure from police and did not align with the facts of the case.
Kapil said it would be false to say that Kent agreed with the commonwealth’s evidence, but he ultimately decided he didn’t want to risk a trial.
“It’s a balancing act between what the commonwealth has and what the defense has. (It was) a case of a razor’s edge, which way will it go,” Kapil said.
After asking each defendant a series of routine questions, Judge Martin Clark accepted their pleas and sentenced them according to agreements reached with the commonwealth.
Hylton, who was identified by Porter as the man who fired the shot that killed Singh, entered Alford pleas to the following charges: first-degree murder; aggravated malicious wounding; use of a firearm in the commission of murder; use of a firearm in the commission of malicious wounding; and possession of a firearm by a convicted juvenile felon.
Had he gone to trial, Hylton would have faced a maximum sentence of life in prison on the first-degree murder charge alone.
Clark sentenced him to a total of 71 years in prison, with all but 18 years and six months suspended on condition of 20 years’ probation and 40 years of good behavior upon his release. The probation and good behavior time will run concurrently.
Kent entered Alford pleas to second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison; aggravated malicious wounding; use of a firearm in the commission of murder; and use of a firearm in the commission of malicious wounding.
Clark sentenced Kent to a total of 66 years in prison with all but 14 years suspended with the same conditions for probation and good behavior as Hylton.
Both will get credit for time served. Each has been incarcerated since shortly after the crime, although Hylton has spent part of that time held on charges in an unrelated case.
After the hearing, Furrow said he advised Hylton to accept the deal offered by the commonwealth.
“He’s young,” the attorney said. “This way, he’ll get out when he’s 38 or 39,” rather than facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Aaron Houchens, who also represented Hylton, said Hylton was “somewhat relieved” after the hearing, but he was having a hard time processing everything that happened.
“It was a gamble,” Kapil said of going to trial. “We had strong evidence, but it would always have been a gamble. At least this way he (Kent) knows what’s going to happen to him.”
Nester said he believes the right three men are behind bars, and he is satisfied with the conclusion of the case.
“With a crime of this magnitude, you would always like more time,” Nester said. “But given the risks in this case ... I believe this was a just result, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses on each side.”
An additional four charges against each man were dismissed as part of their plea agreements.