published Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Eyewitness testimony questioned in Chattanooga murder case

Jerrico "Ri-Ri" Hawthorne sits in Judge Rebecca Stern's courtroom during a trial on charges against him in the slaying of 23-year-old James "J Money" Williams Jr. in this file photo.
Jerrico "Ri-Ri" Hawthorne sits in Judge Rebecca Stern's courtroom during a trial on charges against him in the slaying of 23-year-old James "J Money" Williams Jr. in this file photo.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

On the second day of a trial for a man accused of killing James “J Money” Williams Jr. by shooting him 10 times, the defense called into question the validity of eyewitness accounts.

Jerrico “Ri-Ri” Hawthorne, a member of the Gangster Disciples, was identified by Williams’ girlfriend, Yetta Harris, as well as her teenage son. Williams also identified the gunman as “Ri-Ri” before he died.

Hawthorne has been charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, reckless endangerment, aggravated assault and three counts of especially aggravated robbery in connection to the July 27, 2011, incident inside Williams’ home at 2305 E. 17th St.

Harris spent weeks in the hospital recovering from her injuries. At one point, investigators believed she might die. During that time, she was given a photo lineup to identify Hawthorne, according to testimony.

David Ross, who specializes in developmental psychology and eyewitness accounts and teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said he found a photo lineup administered by Chattanooga police investigators “disturbing.”

“We know that eyewitness testimony can be very accurate and very inaccurate,” he said. “Because memory can be very fragile once you do something to a witness to contaminate the memory, you run the risk of not knowing if that memory is accurate.”

Detectives answered questions asked by Harris, when she was administered the lineup. Information, or even body language, can influence a witness in selecting someone, he said.

When Harris paused on the seventh photograph shown to her, she was told there was one more photo to view.

“We’ll never know if she would have picked No. 7. We’ll never know,” Ross said. Hawthorne was the first photo in the sequential lineup.

Ross said it’s best practice for someone not associated with the case to administer a photo lineup to a witnesses rather than an investigator assigned to the case.

Ross is expected to continue to testify this morning before closing statements and jury deliberations begin.

After Harris identified Hawthorne in the lineup, she was told by Chattanooga police Detective Jay Montgomery that warrants were already issued for Hawthorne.

Montgomery comforted Harris by telling her they would make an arrest.

“Looking at victims in crimes like this it’s important for me to tell them to make them feel better,” Montgomery told the jury. “There was no malicious intent for anything that I did or did not do during the identification.”

However, that can still influence a lineup even if statements are made afterward, Ross said.

“They now start to change their memories because they think they have the right person,” he said.

Myra Mayes was called by the defense as an alibi for Hawthorne. She told the court Hawthorne spent the night with her and did not leave her residence in East Lake Courts until noon the next day.

Prosecutors produced cellphone records showing that calls were placed between Mayes and Hawthorne the same night.

“Why would he call you at 12:30 at night if you were with him?” said Cameron Williams, assistant district attorney.

“Say it again, I’m confused,” Mayes said.

“That’s not a hard question to answer,” Williams said.

Retired Hamilton County Medical Examiner Frank King testified that Williams sustained 14 gunshot wounds from 10 gunshots.

“I think anyone with this many gunshot wounds is an intentional target,” he said.

Hawthorne is accused of robbing Williams, a known drug dealer, before shooting him.

King described the pattern of bullet holes that riddled Williams’ body as a “very complicated, busy pattern.”

“I think the decedent is moving. I think the gun is moving,” he said.

Williams was barely conscious after the shooting. He died on the way to the hospital.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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