How West Virginia’s Criminal Justice System Failed Je’Ron Hawkins
Posted: April 25, 2016 at 5:00 pm
By Caity Coyne, Angie DeWitt, Shaleah Ingram, Corey McDonald, and Kaitlyn Neff
In late 2012 Je’Ron Hawkins, a 19-year-old imprisoned in a West Virginia jail, contacted the West Virginia Innocence Project claiming he had been wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder after a gunfight in Morgantown.
“I’m not saying I’m [guilty] of nothing, but there are a lot of holes and errors that [cost] me my life,” Hawkins, an African-American youth from Dunbar, West Virginia, wrote to the Innocence Project. “I know this is a long shot, but I’ve seriously been railroaded. At 19 years old, I don’t know what to do.”
In January 2013, a few days after the Innocence Project responded to Hawkins’ query, he was brutally assaulted by Anthony Young, a federal inmate also being held at North Central Regional Jail. According to a court order, Young, who was in North Central because he had killed another inmate at a federal penitentiary in Hazelton and was awaiting trial, was supposed to be kept separate from the jail’s general population. Instead, he was allowed into the pod where Hawkins and other inmates were kept. After the attack, Hawkins was airlifted to Ruby Memorial Hospital where he underwent emergency brain surgery.
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Between 2000 and 2016, the number of inmates in West Virginia prisons and jails almost doubled. In 2000, the total jail and prison population in the state totaled 5,500, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. By April 2016, the total population had reached 10,270, officials from the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety say.
Much of that increase comes from the rise in the number of inmates incarcerated in the prisons, causing a backlog of those prisoners in the jails. For example, the number of people sentenced to state prison increased by 61 percent over the last two decades, rising from 2,270 in 1994 to 5,850 in 2015. But because West Virginia’s prisons are at maximum capacity, about 1,183 inmates sentenced to prison are now being housed in the state’s regional jails, resulting in severe overcrowding in those facilities. Inmates are sleeping on mattresses on cell floors and being kept in solitary confinement because there is no space for them elsewhere, according to attorneys who work with the prison population.
“Jails are supposed to act as a temporary housing unit for convicts or people who have not yet been convicted or cannot afford bail,” says Aaron Moss, an attorney with Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit that provides legal service to low-income individuals. “There are around 1,000 people in West Virginia who should be in prison. However, due to the lack of beds in prison, they are in jail.”
Joe Delong, the former superintendent of West Virginia’s regional jails, agrees that the jails are badly overcrowded. He says that in 2013, Anthony Young, despite a specific court order, was being held in the general population of the jail because of overcrowding at North Central Regional Jail. In January of that year, there were 591 inmates in the jail, which had a maximum capacity of 564.
“As far as keeping [violent prisoners] away and allowing no contact, that was nearly impossible because of the overcrowding issues,” Delong says.
In 2013, West Virginia officials, recognizing the severity of the problem, passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which was intended to curb overcrowding by making it easier for inmates to obtain early parole and drug rehabilitation services outside of prison. The law provided for $2.5 million in funding to increase workforce-training programs and create community-based substance abuse treatment services for inmates being transitioned back into the community. Since many of the nonviolent prisoners cluttering its jails are drug offenders, the state also provided an additional $600,000 for new drug addiction outpatient services in West Virginia.
However, overcrowding remains a persistent problem. While there was a dip in the number of overall prisoners immediately after the Justice Reinvestment Act was passed, dropping from 10,207 in 2013 to 10,100 in 2015, the total population of inmates in West Virginia’s prisons and regional jails has climbed back up to 10,270 as of April 2016.
Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, acknowledges that the state’s penal institutions are “overcapacity.” But he says state officials are working hard to reduce their prison population.
“It’s a tall order,” he says. “It’s going to take some time.”
Overcrowding in the prisons and jails not only leads to inmate on inmate violence, such as the assault on Je’Ron Hawkins and the more recent murder of an inmate (by another inmate) in the Mount Olive Correctional Complex, a state prison near Charleston. But it makes it difficult for understaffed and underpaid correctional officers to maintain control and act in responsible ways, Moss says.
“Not only are correctional officers underpaid, but they have to work mandatory overtime hours, which causes more stress in an extremely overstressed environment,” Moss says. “The overwork leads them to do actions that are illegal.”
Messina acknowledges that conditions for West Virginia correctional officers are “some of the worst in the nation.” Six of the state’s ten regional jails had more inmates than available bunks, he says, and there are numerous vacancies for correctional officers in the prisons and jails.
“The [starting] salary is so low that if a correctional officer has a spouse or child, and is the sole income earner, they qualify for federal benefits,” Messina notes.
The causes of overcrowding in West Virginia’s penal institutions can be traced back to the War on Drugs in the late ‘80s and ‘90s that led to the incarceration nationwide of many drug offenders. The problem persists in West Virginia because there has been little reform in sentencing guidelines. Nor are there community resources to treat people with drug abuse and mental illness, according to lawyers who have studied the penal system. In addition, the regional jails do not provide the same kind of educational services for inmates that allow them to earn points toward good behavior and early parole in prison, says Robert Bastress, a West Virginia University Professor of Law.
This month, the Southwestern Regional Jail in Logan County opened its first substance abuse treatment unit, which could potentially reduce prison time for inmates who receive treatment there. But attorneys who represent West Virginia inmates says prison officials are not moving fast enough to address the problem.
“There are number of ways that we can further reduce the prison population,” Moss says, including setting up drug courts that send offenders to alternate drug treatment programs and commuting prison sentences. But, he says “the DOC has not moved on any of this.”
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In September of 2011, Je’Ron Hawkins made arrangements with four friends from Dunbar, a poor, largely African-American area of Kanawha County, to drive up to Morgantown for the WVU vs. Louisiana State University football game. Hawkins, then 18 years old, had grown up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and considered LSU his home team.
Jackie Hawkins, Je’Ron’s mother, recalls that even though her son was born in Charleston, West Virginia, he considered Baton Rouge his real home.
“He wanted to be a little Louisianan,” she says.
Jackie Hawkins, a single parent, had moved her family back to West Virginia from the ruins of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans in 2006 when Hawkins was 14 years old. She says she moved in large part to provide him, his sister Ja’Mary and his brother, Jereko, a safer and more secure childhood.
“I thought if I moved up here it would help,” Jackie said. “But when I came back, drugs had destroyed this state.”
Hawkins and his friends didn’t have tickets to the game, so they tailgated outside the stadium before making their way to High Street to Morgantown’s downtown bar scene. Once there, they met up with some other friends and got into a car parked in a lot along Price Street.
Hawkins later admitted to police that he took some pills while inside the car before he and his friends headed to the Karma nightclub on High Street. They were having a good time until someone from the balcony above spilled their drink on them.
An altercation broke out between two men upstairs – Lucas Lee, 29, a veteran of the Afghan war, and his brother, Robert Lee, 25 – and Hawkins’ crowd downstairs. Karma’s bouncers decided to throw Hawkins and his friends out of the nightclub shortly before closing time.
Once outside, Hawkins and his friends paced around the street, angry over what had happened. When Lucas and Robert Lee finally emerged from the club, Hawkins started shouting at them and pointing. According to surveillance footage, Braheem Griffin, a friend of Hawkins, starting jumping up and down as soon as the Lee brothers walked out of the club.
“That kid was pumping Je’Ron up to do what he ultimately did,” says Sean Murphy, a Morgantown attorney who was one of Hawkins’ public defenders. (Two years later, Griffin would be sentenced to prison for shooting three people outside of a Charleston nightclub).
In the heat of the moment, Hawkins retrieved a handgun from his waist and fired three shots at Lucas Lee. Lucas’ brother, Robert Lee, began shooting back. People outside of club went running in every direction as Lucas Lee, mortally wounded, fell to the ground. Hawkins himself was shot in the leg and limped off down the street with his friends. Two bystanders were also struck by ricocheting bullets, neither seriously injured.
Surveillance videos show Hawkins and his friends high-fiving and chest bumping as they fled. Lucas Lee was pronounced dead at Ruby Memorial Hospital early Sunday morning. After receiving medical treatment at the same hospital, Hawkins returned to Charleston with his friends.
A few days later, after police viewed the surveillance video and interviewed Robert Lee and other witnesses, a warrant was issued for Hawkins’ arrest. He turned himself in to Charleston police on the evening of September 27 and was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Lucas Lee.
The police were never able to retrieve the gun that Robert Lee shot Hawkins with, according to Murphy. Surveillance footage shows a man in a large white T-shirt appearing to take something from Lucas Lee’s body and tucking it into his waistband. Police questioned the man who appeared to have taken the gun used by Robert Lee to shoot Hawkins, but didn’t actively pursue that missing piece of evidence, Murphy says.
“[The police] never even thought about it,” Murphy says. “I figured this out on my own watching [the surveillance footage].”
Nancy Stevens, a private investigator with Tri-S Investigations in Parkersburg who later looked into Hawkins’ case, says the missing gun might have strengthened his self-defense argument.
“That gun would have in all likelihood exonerated him,” she says.
Despite efforts by his public defenders to portray the shooting as self-defense, Hawkins was convicted of first degree murder by an all-white jury in Monongalia Circuit Court. None of his friends who had accompanied him to Morgantown the night of the shooting returned to testify on his behalf.
Jackie Hawkins recalls that her son built his case around Jamaal, a friend who witnessed the shooting, testifying at the trial. But Jamaal, who asked to be identified only by his first name, did not show up.
“I felt like they let him down,” Jackie says. “If one person could have stood up for him, it probably would have made a difference.”
Perri Jo Christopher, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the case, says that Je’Ron Hawkins deserved the first degree murder conviction because he and his friends had waited around outside the nightclub after being evicted.
“Hawkins and his friends waited outside the bar to confront the victim and his brother, so we believe that premeditation was developed within that time frame,” De Christopher says. “Lucas Lee was a veteran who went to Afghanistan twice to defend our country, and that’s how he dies, shot down and killed on the streets of Morgantown.”
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When Hawkins was sent back to the North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County (about 30 miles west of Clarksburg) to await sentencing, he joined the disproportionate number of African-Americans who are incarcerated in West Virginia. In fact, while only three percent of the state’s population is African-American, they make up 12 percent of the state’s prison and jail population, according to the West Virginia Division of Corrections.
This trend echoes a national pattern. In 2014, black males age 18 to 19 were 10 times more likely than white males to be in prison or jail. Six percent of all black men age 30 to 39 were in prison, while the rate was two percent for Hispanic men and one percent for white men, according to the federal Department of Justice.
Many blame the government’s war on drugs that began in the 1980s and levied disproportionately harsher sentences on minority drug offenders involved in the crack epidemic of the inner cities than on whites involved in the sale and use of powdered cocaine. Other crime laws passed in the 1980s and 90s, which created stiffer sentencing for minor offenses, also had an impact. By 1994, African Americans and Latinos accounted for 90 percent of those serving time for drug related offenses.
Other studies show that at every level of the criminal justice system, people of color receive harsher treatment. Nationally, African-American men will serve sentences 10 percent longer on average than that of white men for the same crimes, a 2012 study by the University of Michigan Law School found. All-white juries are more likely to convict minority defendants than juries with a more racially diverse makeup, according to another study by the Capital Jury Project, a research consortium of several universities including the State University of New York.
“Hyper-surveillance of communities of color leads to higher frequency of contacts with law enforcement, and greater arrests then increase the likelihood of a criminal charge,” says Valena Beety, a WVU law professor and director of the WVU Innocence Project. “Privilege plays a role in who is arrested and charged, and who is not.”
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Once Hawkins was returned to North Central Regional Jail after his trial, he spent a lot of his time writing letters – to anyone he thought might help him. He wrote, for instance, to Judge Russell M. Clawges, who oversaw his trial, complaining about the ineffective legal counsel he had received and flaws in the way his defense was handled.
He also wrote to the WVU Innocence Project, arguing that he had shot Lucas Lee in self-defense and asking them for help. The Innocence Project responded in early January, sending him a standard questionnaire to fill out so they could look into the case. But he was attacked by Anthony Young before he even received the package.
The events behind that altercation on January 7, 2013 remain murky. But according to Joe Delong, the director of the regional jails at the time, Anthony Young, a 35-year-old federal inmate under the U.S. Marshals’ supervision, was being held in the jail while awaiting trial for allegedly killing another inmate at the Hazelton federal penitentiary. According to court records, Young had been a leader of a Bloods gang in Roosevelt, New York, and he stood accused of assisting in the murder of another Hazelton inmate, Willie Meyers, a member of the Crips gang.
Despite a court order saying that Young was to be held separate from the general population of prisoners because of his violent criminal history, he appeared to have relatively free run of the jail. According to Delong, he was on cleaning duty when he attacked Hawkins, who was making a phone call in the same vicinity. Young assaulted Hawkins with a mop bucket, beating him repeatedly in the head. Hawkins managed to crawl back to his cell and call for help. When officers arrived, they found Hawkins and his cell covered in blood. Young sustained minor injuries from the altercation, according to the correctional officers’ report of the incident.
Hawkins was airlifted to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, where he was rushed into brain surgery. He died of his injuries two days later, at the age of 19.
“He was 18 when he went in,” Jackie Hawkins says. “You know that’s [the age] when most people are getting their driver’s license, getting ready for college and stuff. He was getting ready for death, little did he know.”
More than three years later, Anthony Young has yet to be charged in the murder of Je’Ron Hawkins.
This story was reported with the help of Cameron Bostic, Reghan Bailey, Kristen Tuell, Terrell Adams, Gabriele Regalbuto, Azizat Ladipo, Molly Nighland, Tori Konczal, Ryan Beckman, Robby Devitt and Kassy Taylor, all journalism students at WVU’s Reed College of Media.