Jury begins deliberations in Amanda Hayes murder trial

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2014 

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Amanda Hayes testifies in her defense Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at the Wake County Justice Center. Hayes, 41, a former actress and art-supply store owner, is accused of working in concert with her husband Grant Hayes to kill Laura Jean Ackerson in July 2011.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— The nine women and three men who began deliberating the fate of Amanda Hayes on Monday retreated to the jury room after hearing two sharply contrasting portrayals of the woman accused of murder.

The defense team, in two hours of closing arguments, contended that Hayes, 41, did not participate in the killing of nor the dismemberment of Laura Jean Ackerson, the Kinston woman and mother of two whose remains were found in a Texas creek in July 2011.

Johnny Gaskins, the Raleigh attorney who represented Hayes, said his client was a victim, too – a victim who testified in her own defense at a murder trial that pulled in evidence from two states and almost 50 witnesses.

The defense team and prosecutors readily agreed on one major detail of the case – that Grant Hayes, the 34-year-old convicted in September of murdering Ackerson, the mother of his two sons, committed a “heinous” crime.

But prosecutors argued on Monday and throughout the trial that Amanda Hayes was not the threatened spouse who acted under duress to “brainstorm” a scheme for disposing of the body, as she testified last week.

Assistant District Attorneys Becky Holt and Boz Zellinger argued that Amanda Hayes, a one-time actress who had minor TV parts in “The O.C.,” “The Sopranos” and as an extra in “The Stepford Wives,” gave the biggest performance of her life in Wake County Superior Court last week. They argued that her testimony, when coupled with the physical evidence and statements from others, was “so ridiculous” that it made “zero sense.”

“What you have experienced through the course of this,” Holt told jurors, “... is a fine acting job. Amanda Hayes has played a role. … She has given the performance of her life.”

Prosecutors argued that Amanda Hayes acted in concert to kill Ackerson, a 27-year-old from Kinston engaged in a bitter legal battle to regain custody of her sons. Prosecutors contended that Amanda Hayes was not coerced by her husband, and they showed photographs of her smiling while sandwiched between her husband and other family members.

They recounted passages from letters that Amanda Hayes wrote from jail to her mother-in-law, describing her love for Grant Hayes and suggesting that the two work out a schedule where they can meditate at the same times from their different jail cells.

“The hard part of this is that nobody wants to believe that somebody could do this,” Holt argued. “That fights against your reason and common sense. That fights against who we are as people and common humanity.”

But the evidence presented at the trials of Grant and Amanda Hayes showed that Ackerson’s body was dismembered, then transported across country in a U-Haul in coolers purchased at area Wal-Marts. Prosecutors contend circular saws were used.

Grant Hayes, who has appealed his verdict, acknowledged at his trial that he participated in the disposal of the body. But his defense team argued that he was a husband who had panicked in the wake of a killing for which they said Amanda Hayes was responsible.

Amanda Hayes testified that she and Ackerson had bumped into each other in the Hayeses’ Wake County apartment on July 13, 2011. That encounter came after a custody dispute with Grant Hayes yielded an agreement about the children – one that prosecutors contend Ackerson never would have signed without being threatened.

A cellmate of Amanda Hayes in the Wake County jail testified that Amanda Hayes told her Ackerson had died in the apartment after an accident in the kitchen.

The defense team contended that Amanda Hayes did not know how Ackerson died. Gaskins offered up a theory that Ackerson could have been strangled with an Apple computer cord in the Wake County apartment, after which Grant Hayes could have drained her body of blood through a wound in her neck and performed the cutting somewhere else.

Amanda Hayes testified that she did not know Ackerson had died until she arrived in Texas with her husband, his pre-school age sons and her infant daughter. Gaskins told the jury that Amanda Hayes thought she was going to Texas to see her sister and drop off a piece of furniture there. The visit was organized several months after the death of Amanda Hayes’ mother.

“He has concealed everything he has done from Amanda,” Gaskins argued. “She arrives in Texas, happy, content to see her sister without any hint whatsoever that Grant has killed Laura.”

Gaskins pointed out that no evidence of blood was gathered from the apartment where the Hayeses lived in Wake County. He also reminded the jurors that there were no saw marks in the bathroom where prosecutors contend the dismemberment took place.

“I suggest to you that Grant Hayes, and Grant Hayes alone, killed Laura,” Gaskins said.

He suggested that Grant Hayes used cash to purchase coolers, ice bags and other items used for the dismemberment and cross-country transport of the remains in an attempt to hide the crime from his wife.

Judge Don Stephens instructed the jurors to consider three charges in the Amanda Hayes case. They were instructed to deliberate over the accusation of first-degree murder, which includes acting in concert with her husband to commit the crime; second-degree murder and accessory after the fact of murder.

The jury went home Monday after an hour of deliberations and two questions for the judge. They asked for a diagram of the apartment and the meaning of “acting in concert.”

Deliberations resume Tuesday morning.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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