New charge in trailer park murder
Ronald Powell was sentenced to two years in prison on December 4 for two counts of perjury that stem from testimony he gave during the 2006 trial for the murder of his then 18-year-old girlfriend, Azlee Hickman. In that trial, Powell testified that he had been in the room when his friend William Marshall strangled Hickman, contradicting earlier testimony he had given during a preliminary hearing.
Early in the morning of March 13, 2004, Hickman was found dead from asphyxiation in the Carlton Avenue trailer that she shared with Powell, laying just feet from her sleeping infant daughter. Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman argued that Marshall, who had been out drinking that night with Powell in violation of an earlier probation, killed Hickman when she threatened to report Marshall.
Powell and his then-teenage daughter, Heather, testified against Marshall, whose DNA was found under Hickman’s fingernails. But Chapman struggled with unreliable witnesses. After the 12-person jury split with five wanting to convict Marshall, Judge Edward Hogshire declared a mistrial.
Chapman decided after the mistrial that he couldn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, due in large part to the unreliable testimony of all the material witnesses. Instead of retrying Marshall, in 2006 Chapman reached a plea bargain with the defendant in which Marshall pleaded guilty to accessory. The deal, for which Marshall got 12 months on the misdemeanor charge, meant that prosecutors could not try Marshall for Hickman’s murder.
Chapman says now that he believes Marshall was the killer.
"We believe that we put on trial the person who killed Azlee Hickman," he says. "But we’ve come to acknowledge that we’re not able to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt."
Powell is no longer a suspect in the killing. Chapman says no further charges will likely come out of the case.
"I don’t know of any that we could seek," he says.
The biggest obstacle to getting a murder conviction, according to Chapman, was the unreliable testimony of Ronald and Heather Powell and Marshall himself. When police arrested them, he says, they gave no "obvious and clear" information that would have lead police to "start the investigation down a path that would have led to a better result," Chapman says.
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