RALEIGH — Amanda Hayes, a former actress in the U.S. Virgin Islands, did not have a speaking part during the opening of her murder trial in Wake County Superior Court on Monday.
Her attorney, Johnny Gaskins, a Wake County lawyer, did the talking as he laid out the 41-year-old mother’s broad-stroke defense to the nine women and three men on the jury.
Gaskins contends Hayes is on trial in a tragedy that has three main characters, whom the attorney described as two victims and a “sociopath” who injured both females.
The first victim, the attorney said, is Laura Jean Ackerson, the 27-year-old woman and mother of two who was killed, dismembered, then disposed of in a Texas creek in summer 2011.
Grant Hayes is the 34-year-old former Wake County musician who was convicted in September of first-degree murder in Ackerson’s death. He also is the husband of Amanda Hayes, who is the mother of one of his children, and a man who could seem “charming,” “witty” and “very talented” while also being “controlling,” “manipulative” and “deceitful.”
“Grant Hayes is the classic sociopath,” Gaskins told the jurors. “Grant saw women as people who needed to be controlled by him. They needed to be submissive to him.”
Gaskins contends that Grant Hayes killed Ackerson, the mother of his two sons, inside his Wake County apartment while Amanda Hayes was gone with the boys and the infant daughter she had had with the musician.
Gaskins said Ackerson had tripped on a rug while both were home and that Grant Hayes sent Amanda Hayes out with the three young children so that he could call emergency dispatchers.
Later that evening, Gaskin said, Grant Hayes told Amanda Hayes that Ackerson was OK, and that she had left on her own.
It was not until days later, the Amanda Hayes defense team contends, that she found out Ackerson was dead and the couple towed her body cross-country.
Wake County prosecutors say otherwise.
They argued that Amanda Hayes acted in concert with Grant Hayes to kill Ackerson, then participated in the dismembering of the Kinston woman’s body and the cross-country transport of the pieces to her sister’s home in Texas. Investigators found Ackerson’s remains – limbs detached, head severed and torso cut in half – in a vine-choked creek near the home of Amanda Hayes’ sister. The gruesome discovery occurred on July 24, 2011 – 11 days after the last public sighting of Ackerson.
“ ‘I hurt her. I hurt her bad. She’s dead,’ ” Boz Zellinger, one of two Wake County assistant district attorneys prosecuting the case, recited for the jury several times. “Those are the words of Amanda Hayes to her sister.”
Prosecutors plan to present their case as one that focuses little on “who struck the fatal blow,” and more on what they contend was a married couple acting together to kill a woman with whom they were embroiled in a bitter custody dispute, then hide her death.
At the trial of Grant Hayes in late August and early September, his defense team argued that Amanda Hayes accidentally killed Ackerson while her husband was out of the room.
The couple then panicked, according to attorneys representing Grant Hayes, and began an elaborate and gruesome scheme to dismember Ackerson’s body and dispose of it in a Texas creek.
Detectives have said Ackerson’s remains were placed in several large coolers, loaded into a rented U-Haul trailer that the Hayeses then towed more than 1,250 miles to the home of Amanda Hayes’ sister, and then dumped in a creek about 100 yards from the house.
Attorneys for Amanda Hayes have said she initially told her sister that she “hurt” Ackerson out of fear for her own life. They have said Grant Hayes threatened her with a machete. They also point out that Amanda Hayes told her sister out of the earshot of Grant Hayes that she was “covering” for him.
Prosecutors contend that Amanda Hayes should not be cast in the role of a victim.
“This isn’t a case about a movie, and it isn’t a movie,” Zellinger said. “This is not a stage. …This is a case about a young woman who was murdered.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1