Jury chooses death sentence for Tennessee man

June 11, 2011 - 8:30 PM

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A jury issued a death sentence Saturday for a Memphis man found guilty of murdering the mother of his three children and then dismembering and disposing of her body.

The jury reached its decision shortly before 7:30 p.m. EST in the case against 33-year-old James Hawkins.

Hawkins' 15-year-old daughter, the prosecution's chief witness, had testified that her father repeatedly sexually abused her when she was 12 years old.

The girl said she saw her father stab and strangle 28-year-old Charlene Gaither during an argument on Feb. 9, 2008. Hawkins' two sons, ages 13 and 14, also testified against him.

It took less than two hours for the jury to convict Hawkins on Friday.

During the sentencing hearing Friday, jurors were shown six gruesome photos of Gaither's torso, which had dark gray wounds where the head, feet and hands were removed. They also heard for the first time about Hawkins' 17 prior convictions on aggravated robbery and aggravated assault charges.

The defense called witnesses, who testified that Hawkins had an IQ of 77 and suffers from attention deficit disorder.

Hawkins' mother, Della Thomas, told the jury Saturday she did not want her only son to die.

She said Hawkins' father, James Hawkins Sr., would hit her and also abuse their daughter.

Thomas said her son's behavior worsened after his brother was fatally shot at age 15. Thomas said she raised Hawkins and his five siblings the best she could as a single mother who had to work to support the family.

"He is my only son," Thomas said. "Like any mother, you don't want your son to die."

Hawkins showed more emotion during the sentencing phase than during the trial. On Saturday, he would often close his eyes and bow his head. He could be seen drying his teary eyes during his mother's testimony.

Hawkins did not testify, but he did apologize to Gaither's family.

Outside the courtroom, the victim's father, Louis Irvin, said he was relieved to finally get justice for his daughter.

"I'm sad, though, his mother is going to lose a child," Irvin said. He also said that he hopes the sentence serves as a deterrent for people who think of committing murder.

"We need to make this an example," Irvin said. "We have to stop this violence and hatred."

Relatives of Hawkins declined to comment.

Defense attorneys were not available for comment after the verdict was read.

Prosecutor Missy Branham said that the heroes of the trial were the children who testified against their father.

"This was just a trauma for all the children," Braham said.

Cynthia Guy, Gaither's sister, has been taking care of the victim's three children. She said they are doing fine and she would do her best to care for them.

"The jury did their job," Guy said. "Like I said, nobody wins in this situation."

Because of the sexual abuse allegations, The Associated Press is not identifying the defendant's children, whose last names are different from the father's.