Memphis dad guilty in killing, dismemberment

June 10, 2011 - 12:59 PM

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Memphis man was found guilty Friday of murder after his three children gave vivid testimony about how he stabbed and strangled their mother then dismembered and disposed of her body.

It took less than two hours for the jury to convict James Hawkins, 33, in the killing and dismemberment of 28-year-old Charlene Gaither.

The jury next will decide if he should be sentenced to death.

Outside the courtroom, relatives of Gaither wept loudly and hugged each other. A prosecutor said the jury clearly believed the children's testimony.

"They were completely truthful and forthright," prosecutor Jennifer Nichols said outside the courtroom.

Defense attorney Gerald Skahan said he was surprised by the speed of the verdict.

The chief witness against Hawkins was his 15-year-old daughter. She testified that when she was 12 she was repeatedly sexually abused by Hawkins, who had reconciled with Gaither after serving time in prison.

The girl said she saw her father stab and strangle her mother on Feb. 9, 2008. She said Hawkins threatened her with a knife to force her to help him put the body in a freezer and later cut it up. She said she had to hold the head as Hawkins severed it.

His two sons testified that their father took them to a Kmart to buy a saw the day of the murder and they helped him remove a mattress from the couple's bedroom.

A highway crew in DeSoto County, Miss., found Gaither's headless body, which also was missing hands and feet, on the banks of the Coldwater River on Valentine's Day 2008.

Hawkins didn't testify. He pleaded guilty to dismembering the body but told police his daughter killed Gaither and he was only helping to cover it up.

It was clear during the trial that the children were upset with their father. The girl told the court she hates him and the youngest son repeatedly referred to him as "the defendant."

"All the pain and all the tears, I don't really feel comfortable calling him my dad," the 13-year-old said during testimony.

The girl's claim of abuse was backed up by testimony from one brother who described seeing them in a bedroom.

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