Billy Hawk, Who Once Faced Life In Prison After Cold Case Murder Conviction, Walks Free

Monday, February 24, 2020 - by Joseph Dycus

Billy Hawk’s nearly 40-year-long saga came to an end after Hawk pled nolo contendere to a lesser plea of voluntary manslaughter in Hamilton County Criminal Court on Monday morning. This plea will set Hawk free, as he has already served the five-year prison sentence required.

Under terms of the plea, Hawk will be forbidden from speaking to the victim’s family.

District Attorney Neal Pinkston said, "I am very proud of the Cold Case Unit and all prosecutors who worked on this case to obtain a conviction. The pursuit of justice and prosecution of an almost 40 year old case is extremely difficult to say the least, but we have now identified and convicted Johnny Mack Salyer's murderer. His family will no longer wonder." 

He said the victim’s family is okay with the plea agreement, and is appreciative of the work done by the office’s Cold Case Unit. 

Hawk allegedly murdered Johnny Salyer and stuffed his body in a barrel back in 1981. He was found guilty in a 2016 trial. However, he was granted a retrial in 2019 after issues were found with the prosecution.

“The circumstances of the prosecution have been extraordinary for everyone, and we’re just pleased that we could bring an end to it today, for Mr. Hawk and for everyone,” said his attorney, Melanie Bean.

Judge Don Poole last year had granted a new trial to Hawk, who earlier had been sentenced to life in prison.

The 1981 cold case murder had been reopened in 2015 after almost 35 years of silence. Witness testimony in the trial ranged from expert forensics agents to friends and family of both Hawk and Salyer.

Judge Poole said testimony by Cleveland attorney Jim Logan "that he made mistakes but the other defense lawyers made non-tactical mistakes amounting to ineffective assistance of counsel is troubling."

He said attorney Logan was Hawk's first lawyer and "was clearly upset" when Hawk later chose Chattanooga attorney Bill Speek as his lead counsel. 

The judge added, "As long as a lawyer continues to represent a client, however, he should participate fully in decision making and, if certain things are not done or should be done, he should take an active role in making sure those things are done. If he cannot do this, the appropriate course would seem to be to withdraw from the case. It is sincerely hoped that any lawyer who goes to trial does his best to ensure that his client receives a fair trial."

Judge Poole said the main reason he decided to grant a new trial was based on "acts and omissions" relating to witness Terry Slaughter, a former Chattanooga Police detective who later was charged and convicted in Federal Court.

The judge noted that former District Attorney Gary Gerbitz was called as a witness and was critical of Slaughter's credibility, calling him "a crooked cop" and a liar. He said there was a heated exchange between witness Gerbitz and current District Attorney Neal Pinkston, who then asked if he was aware that Slaughter had passed lie detector tests. He said former DA Gerbitz replied, "I don't know that at all."  The judge said the questions about the polygraph tests were inappropriate and bolstered Slaughter's credibility.

The state’s narrative claimed Hawk, possibly fearing Salyer would testify against him in court after a drug-related arrest, shot the victim, stuffed him inside a steel barrel, and dropped him in the Tennessee River."

The defense contended that the majority of witness testimony was unreliable due to the number of years that had passed since the slaying.

They also pointed out several pieces of valuable evidence that had been lost or destroyed, including the barrel itself.

Click here for the Poole order, and here for the Poole memorandum.

 


Alabama Now Has 17 Deaths, 1,060 Cases, From Coronavirus

Dalton Adds Restrictions In COVID-19 Situation

Whitfield County Plans Live Conference Call To Discuss Coronavirus On Thursday


Alabama has gone from four coronavirus deaths on Sunday to 17 reported on Wednesday by the Alabama Department of Health. The total includes seven people at Lee County's East Alabama Medical Center ... (click for more)

At a specially called meeting on Wednesday, the city of Dalton mayor and Council approved new measures that expanded the city’s response to the COVID-19 state of emergency that was declared on ... (click for more)

In an effort to spread awareness and to discuss the county’s response to Coronavirus (Covid-19) , Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter and Emergency Management Agency ... (click for more)




Breaking News

Alabama Now Has 17 Deaths, 1,060 Cases, From Coronavirus

Alabama has gone from four coronavirus deaths on Sunday to 17 reported on Wednesday by the Alabama Department of Health. The total includes seven people at Lee County's East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika. Five of the seven people who died at the Opelika hospital were from Chambers County, which is just north of Opelika. Alabama coronavirus cases went from 830 on Sunday ... (click for more)

Dalton Adds Restrictions In COVID-19 Situation

At a specially called meeting on Wednesday, the city of Dalton mayor and Council approved new measures that expanded the city’s response to the COVID-19 state of emergency that was declared on March 23. The expanded resolution was developed jointly with the other municipal and county governments of Whitfield County. The resolution passed by a unanimous 4-0 vote. Mayor David Pennington ... (click for more)

Opinion

Please Do Your Part

Each day in Georgia, physicians, nurses and other health care providers go to work in our hospitals, nursing centers or private office practices to care for patients with a variety of health needs. This practice of medicine occurs 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and 365 days per year; because illnesses and injuries don’t take a holiday. Without thinking twice, patients visit ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: My Garden This April

The lush green of the trees and the bushes, the beautiful birds so full of song, my rose bush coming alive, and the fact that today it is not raining cannot dull my heavy heart as I stay in prayer for all of us in the midst of our world’s pandemic. Already there is no one who hasn’t been affected in some way by the fiercest storm any of us have ever known, and already I know we ... (click for more)

Sports

Dan Fleser: Zaay Green Also Leaving Lady Vols

KNOXVILLE – As it turns out, Tennessee didn’t just lose a point guard this week. The Lady Vols are down a starting backcourt. Sophomore guard Zaay Green has joined Chattanooga product Jazmine Massengill in leaving the program. Green announced her intentions via Instagram on Wednesday, a days after classmate Massengill said that she was putting her name in the transfer portal. ... (click for more)

Dan Fleser: Chattanooga's Jazmine Massengill Leaving The Lady Vols

KNOXVILLE – It took Tennessee five decades to finally land a women’s basketball player from Chattanooga. And now Jazmine Massengill is leaving after just two seasons. The 6-foot point guard, who just completed her sophomore season with the Lady Vols, has entered her name into the transfer portal. She confirmed her decision on social media, saying: “I truly appreciate my teammates ... (click for more)