The Murray Lawrence, Jr. Story
“A Deal With the Devil”
Alabama's “Making of A Murderer”
By Chris E. Warner
Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The following one, however, has only a beginning and a middle. The end, is still much in question. It, and the denouement, will be determined by the human beings who read this prepared narrative—and demand appropriate legal and political action. An innocent young man's life has been taken from him, and his family; the people who miss and love him dearly, more than anyone in this world. Human beings are not infallible. As such, they are capable of fixing things, especially when the stakes are sky high.
Murray Lawrence's freedom was stolen from him by a racist political and judicial system bent on convicting another black man for the murder of a white man—any black man—instead of the lone actual perpetrator; who is a different black man involved in the case. Murray Lawrence, however, was not just any black man. His great-grandmother was a white woman, evidenced by his lighter skin tone. Young and handsome, he was known for something taboo—dating white women—more than one. He was also known to peddle cocaine—and his family to be an enemy of the local police. But, he was not a murderer.
To understand Little Bubba's unbelievable predicament—he has served 17 years in the Alabama State Penitentiary—you must understand where he comes from, the state he lives in now; his home town.
You see, Murray Lawrence, Jr. is from Fairhope, Alabama, one of the most beautiful, yet equally despicable places you will ever care to visit, as it is where the Constitution of the United States of America still struggles to work for everyone, especially people of color, over fifty years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
This heart-wrenching story is also about trust—how essential it is between the accused and his counsel, and how in a courtroom setting, once misplaced, can allow a tragedy of this horrible magnitude to unfold.
These are the machinations of a coterie of bad actors bent on enforcing with impunity their own misguided brand of Southern justice denied. This story exposes them, for everyone to see.
Betrayal is the absence of trust. Murray Lawrence, Jr., like Our Creator's only Son, was betrayed by many—but certainly by the most important ally he had, his legal lifeline, counselor and supposed confidante—his hired representative; his attorney sworn to uphold and defend every enumerable legal right he held under the Constitution. Murray Lawrence, Jr., or “Little Bubba,” was sold down the river by another person of color because it was politically expedient for a counselor corrupted at an early age by easy money, self-loathing and the Alabama political Machine.
Defense counselor Willie Huntley did the unthinkable. In a capital murder trial where his client faced the death penalty, he chose not to call a single witness for the defense after the prosecution rested. He simply quit; Willie Huntley failed to show up for the second half kickoff. Instead, the former Auburn football player chose to stay in the locker room. He never ran back out the tunnel. As a result, his client suffered a terrible defeat with an unthinkable price tag: life in prison—no chance for parole.
The only way that could have been corroborated was if he and the judge and District Attorney had discussed prior to their bench conference Huntley not calling any witnesses; which is alarming and traitorous, considering the egregious trial outcome and the pressing need at hand to present a full, thorough and accurate examination of the prosecution's case and version of the events leading to murder, which had more holes in it than a sieve; and was based on mostly circumstantial evidence.
The Back Story
I moved to Fairhope, Alabama in late 2003, with my family. I encountered the vociferous Paul Ripp, a consumer advocate and political activist living there, who ran a consumer blog and attended all of the city council meetings; he was a mainstay in all things political in the postage stamp town, and a really tough customer.
Despite me moving to nearby Perdido Key, Florida in 2014, Francis Paul Ripp and I remained in contact. I was interested in Ripp's unusual flair for local politics; although my role afterward was a sounding board from afar, as I lived in another state. A former educator, I make my living writing and publishing books; I tell stories. My favorite genre is true crime. This is one of those types of stories; and this is how my telling of it began:
Murray Lawrence, Sr. a.k.a. “Booby Jack” / “Big Bubba”
In late July 2020, I was in Fairhope visiting with the quintessential gadfly, Mr. Francis Paul Ripp. We talked about the upcoming municipal elections. Unexpectedly he handed me a two and a half page typed letter written by a Fairhope resident. I asked him who wrote the letter.
He replied, “Booby Jack!”
“Booby Jack?” I asked.
He confirmed it. I knew who Booby Jack was. His name was Murray Lawrence, Sr. He also went occasionally by “Big Bubba,” but most called him “Booby Jack.” He was a popular black businessman in Fairhope—one who had run for the city council four years prior, in 2016, at the request of Paul Ripp. He ran a successful tree service and was the patriarch of a group of friends and relatives that lived in a tiny compound off of Young Street in Fairhope, the known black area of town. Booby Jack did not win in his bid for city council—but he made a fine showing, which was surprising for a provincial, traditionally conservative enclave like Fairhope, which was mainly republican, and white, due to the way the City of Fairhope's past leaders drew the city and county lines through the middle of the only black neighborhood, diluting its voting strength.
I needed to get going but Ripp asked me to read it while I sat there, in front of him. The top of the first page read, “The Truth of Friday, May 13th, 2005. Place: Baldwin County Courthouse, Bay Minette, Alabama.”
As I got through it I stopped periodically and looked at Ripp and asked, “Is this real?” more than once. After I was done, my blood pressure was higher. It spiked. I stood and paced. I did not like what I read.
“This is real? His son is still in jail over this?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Ripp said. “It's sad.”
And it was—extremely sad. The letter soured me. But I was taken by it. I wanted to know more.
The final plea at the end of the letter detailing the prosecution's reliance on circumstantial evidence and exonerating facts that could and should amount to reasonable doubt for any potential new jury in the murder case against his son, was simple; but it spoke to me:
“My heart was filled with faith going into this trial but now it's filled with hurt and despair. Lawyers in Mobile and surrounding counties have stated to me that a person cannot receive a fair trial in the Baldwin County Court System. Please, I need an angel. My information is as follows:”
The Friday the 13th in May 2005, I learned, was the day Little Bubba was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole at the Baldwin County Courthouse in Bay Minette, Alabama.
I asked Paul Ripp if the number printed on the bottom of the document was still good. Paul replied that it was indeed Booby Jack's cell number—a working number, despite the letter now being several years old.
Later that day, driving east to Florida, I called Booby Jack, got reacquainted with him and told him I wanted to meet with him and hear more; and that I wanted to read the trial transcript.
He replied, “It's a lot big boy. You sure? It's like 2,000 pages.”
I replied, “I don't care. Give it to me.”
And so it went.
After reading the trial transcripts, exhibits and interviewing individuals privy to the particulars of the case, I have rendered the following.
This manuscript is constructed for the purpose of telling Murray Lawrence, Jr.'s sordid story, so that he can obtain a deserved new trial; and so that new and irrefutable exculpatory evidence can be presented to a jury untainted by the wickedness of Baldwin County, Alabama, the source of unadulterated evil that wrongly locked up Little Bubba in an Alabama state penitentiary, without relief, for nearly 18 years.
This is also the beginning and middle of a book, that will be later published. I presume that by the time the end is written, a Netflix documentary will already be in play, one not unlike the successful series “Making of a Murderer,” as this is a story that will stay with you, and lead you to pull for Little Bubba; and for the unfair, racist system to change.
Prior to reading the voluminous trial transcripts, I told a couple of people about Booby Jack's heart-wrenching letter, and the apparent lack of physical evidence in his son's case, along with a host of other questions and concerns I had, and that it had compelled me to do something—because I can. Both said that at some point during my consumption of the transcripts I would either have a eureka moment that he was indeed guilty; or become more convinced that Little Bubba was innocent. They were right—and it was the latter result.
I am wholly convinced, with every synapse and sinew of my being, that Murray Lawrence, Jr. was done wrong. He was framed and did not commit murder in Baldwin County in April 2003. It is my full and complete opinion that a travesty of justice transpired; and must be reversed if we are to call ourselves a civilized society. This is not a hollow promise, nor is it a threat. It is the truth, and it will ultimately set this man free. Nelson Mandela was right, “Fools multiply when wise men are silent.”
In this peculiar case one must ask oneself: Why? It is difficult to fathom why a group of people—white and black—would work together to convict an innocent black man of murder—to outright frame a harmless, unsuspecting person, for a crime he did not commit. The impetus for such a hurtful wrongdoing, it turns out, is rooted in history; the painful history of Fairhope and the State of Alabama and that of the American South.
Little Bubba's father, Murray Lawrence, Sr., also known as “Big Bubba” or more commonly as “Booby Jack,” was born in Fairhope, Alabama in 1955. Fairhope High School finally integrated in 1969, when he was 14. Murray Sr. said his cousin Eddie Davis was killed by the Ku Klux Klan around this time, because he dated white women. He was found dead with another black woman inside a car. His neck had bruises. He said after the murders the family of the klansman rumored to have committed the crime moved suddenly away from the area. No investigation ensued and no charges were ever filed.
Booby Jacks' grandmother, the white woman mentioned earlier (Little Bubba's great-grandmother) was murdered in Fairhope walking home from the local grocery store. She was found strangled at the dump with a grocery bag of rice and beans still clinging to her hand. It was rumored that she too was killed by the KKK for practicing miscegenation. Again, there was no investigation or conviction for the crime.
After graduating high school in 1973, Big Bubba moved to California and enlisted in the Army in December 1973. He spent four years enlisted, getting out in 1978. Educated as a welder for three years during high school, after the service he worked for large industrial fabricators in Seattle, Houston and in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. In 1979, he met Little Bubba's mother, Deborah, and Murray Jr. was born October 1, 1981. Deborah passed away while Little Bubba was incarcerated. Big Bubba has 11 children—nine girls and two boys.
Murray Lawrence, Jr. was not always in prison. When he was picked up by the Baldwin County Sheriff's Department in April 2003, he was working at his hourly job at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, where he was a cook. Prosecutors unfairly painted him as a listless drug dealer without a job. However, that slight is inconsequential, and small compared to this larger story of inequality.
Like in other cases of miscarried justice, people who know Little Bubba insist he could have never committed murder, that he was incapable of such a heinous crime, given his well-known easy-going temperament and disposition. James Watkins, a fellow of large build nicknamed “The Green Mile,” a cousin of Little Bubba, and retired Navy Chief Petty Officer of 22 years, said he has never felt right about the outcome of the trial and he recalls that Murray Jr., or “Little Bubba” as he was called, was always a gentle person; “and was never even able to hurt an insect.” Gloria L. Matthews, a neighbor, family friend and long-time cafeteria worker at Fairhope High School, said Little Bubba was “sweet, and easy-going and really never could hurt anyone. He was a good kid.”
Little Bubba was born October 1, 1981, making him 22 when he was arrested in the spring of 2003, for the murder of Gary Brandon Hastings, a young man known simply by his friends and family, as Brandon. Little Bubba was not a friend of Brandon Hastings; but he was a friend of Jarious McNiel; and it was Jarious who was friends with Brandon Hastings, the decedent.
Brandon, a white guy, was diminutive in stature. He stood five foot five and weighed just over 100 pounds. What Brandon lacked in size he made up for in determination and sweat. He worked three jobs, carried cash he regularly earned, dressed smartly and drove a nice car with flashy mag wheels and a kick ass sound system. Brandon was liked by friends and loved by family. His only downfall was knowing Jarious McNiel.
Weeks before Robertsdale, Alabama native Brandon Hastings went missing, Jarious McNiel, from nearby Foley, Alabama, recently generally discharged from the Army, was booked for counterfeiting and passing fake money, which amounted to serious federal charges. McNiel, at the time of Hasting's murder, was awaiting trial for the counterfeiting charges and living with his white girlfriend of two and a half years, Cynthia Weston, in an apartment in Daphne, Alabama. Cynthia testified in court that Brandon never paid half the rent and utilities like he promised, and that they “basically went their separate ways” after they moved into the apartment together. Cynthia stated that Jarious, prior to becoming a suspect in the murder of Brandon Hastings, had quit an hourly job he had at a local warehouse, as she knew he was no longer going to his scheduled work shift. Due to a lack of funds, his cell phone was shut off, she also noted, proving that at that juncture Jarious badly needed money.
The Murder of Brandon Hastings
Saturday April 5, 2003, was the day before the annual time change. At midnight clocks sprung forward an hour, ushering in Daylight Savings. Earlier that evening Jarious McNiel was at the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, hanging out with friends. Brandon Hastings was also out that night. He and a friend went to the beach late and cruised around. After seeing that nothing was going on, Brandon brought his friend back to his house in Foley, Alabama, about a half hour north of the beach. After that, Brandon received a cell phone call from Jarious saying there were some guys and girls from Michigan that had a place in Foley and were having a party. Jarious wanted to hook up with Brandon and go to the party, for the purpose of meeting the said females. Brandon obliged and met Jarious; and they went to the party together, Brandon driving his car. Shortly thereafter, some time after midnight, Brandon Hastings was strangled and killed by Jarious McNiel.
McNiel placed Brandon's lifeless body in the backseat of his Acura. The trunk was filled with a large speaker box, the source of the kick-ass sound system, and because of that it was unable to accommodate even Brandon's tiny torso. Jarious drove Brandon's car to Fairhope, Alabama, 18 miles northwest of Foley, to Little Bubba's girlfriend's house, that of Tonya Mixson. Mixson, white, hired a rising barrister, a capable counselor named Hallie Dixon, who would later become District Attorney, after David Whetstone, her misguided adversary in this case. Dixon cut a deal with Whetstone to provide immunity for her client, Tonya Mixson, if she told the truth. Mixson testified she and Little Bubba were awakened early Sunday morning at around 3:30 a.m. by a loud tapping at their bedroom window. Tonya said she saw it was Jarious, and that he was in a strange car with fancy rims.
Tonya stated Little Bubba went outside to see Jarious and returned with a large speaker box and placed it inside their bedroom closet. She said Little Bubba went back outside, spoke to Jarious and returned to bed. They went back to sleep and Tonya testified further that Little Bubba was there next to her in bed in the morning when she woke the next day, and that he had not left, as far as she knew, as she was never awakened by him again leaving the bed, after he got up to talk to Jarious and get the speaker box.
Jarious testified he and Little Bubba left Tonya Mixson's house and drove west via I-10 to an exit near Gauthier, Mississippi and dumped the body off a rural road near a remote trailer park, five miles from the interstate. McNiel testified he and Little Bubba removed the body from the trunk and placed it where it was found. McNiel, post-confession, yet pre-trial, took investigators to the scene where the headless body of the victim was found, although it was unsure that McNiel had ever been there before, per his testimony. He twice referred to the trailer park as “houses” during his testimony and a gold necklace and ring were left on the body, which defied the obvious fact he was destitute and desperate for cash.
Wild dogs severed and separated the head of Brandon Hastings from the torso. Crime scene technicians who testified stated the body appeared to have been dragged by its feet on its stomach to where it was found, as the victim's shirt rode high on the body, above his navel; the arms were outstretched and the watch face was near his left palm, consistent with being dragged face-down. Conspicuously, the young man's jewelry—a watch, a gold necklace and a gold chain, were left on the body by the perpetrator, or perpetrators—an important clue in what was also tagged as a robbery case by the prosecution (in addition to murder).
Jarious testified he and Little Bubba dumped the body in the conspicuous place in rural Mississippi, failed to mention they left the jewelry; and said they returned to the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay later that Sunday morning, Jarious hiding the car near his girlfriend's apartment after he dropped Little Bubba back at Tonya's house.
Brandon Hastings's car turned up early Monday morning at the Port of Mobile, stripped completely of anything of value. The wheels, rims, radio, amplifier and speakers were all taken; everything worth money was removed. Jarious said he and his half brother, Damiene Heard, stripped and abandoned the car on late Sunday evening and returned to Baldwin County.
Brandon Hastings never returned home. His mother and family reported him missing. Within days of Brandon Hastings not coming home to his family, rumors circulated and people began talking amongst themselves. Days later, knowing he was a person of interest in the disappearance of Brandon Hastings, Jarious, still in possession of a firearm he stole weeks earlier from a vehicle in Daphne, gave the gun to a friend in the neighborhood. This friend got word to Little Bubba that he held a pistol given to him by Jarious McNiel—the guy everybody was talking about.
Jarious was on the radar of investigators. He was spotted with Brandon the night of his disappearance, in what amounted to the last person who saw him alive—a female eye witness at Beebo's, Brandon's work place. A woman said she saw Brandon in his car with a black male. Jarious's half brother, Damiene Heard, questioned by Baldwin County Sheriff deputies, agreed to tell everything after he learned the jig was up. Fearing reprisal, he ratted out his accomplice in covering up the crime, Jarious. Little Bubba drew the attention of authorities because he had in his possession Brandon's speaker box, known stolen material belonging to the deceased, given to him at Tonya's residence during the early Sunday morning hours. More importantly, there was the issue of the gun that allegedly was stolen by Jarious and given to a cousin of Little Bubba, who also lived in the neighborhood. This gun changed the direction of the investigation, with Booby Jack and his son becoming more of the focus thereafter.
When Big Bubba, Murray Lawrence, Sr., also known as “Booby Jack” learned from Little Bubba that there was a gun floating around that came from Jarious, he decided they should turn it into the police, because there were already rumors circulating that Little Bubba may have been involved along with Jarious in the disappearance of Brandon Hastings, as they ran together.
Murray Sr. called the Fairhope Police Department and was connected with officer Steve Griffis, who met Big Bubba and Little Bubba at Fairhope High School, and they handed over the unloaded pistol linked to Jarious McNiel. This “Good Samaritan” move proved to be a mistake for the Murray family, as it drew considerably more law enforcement attention to them—and more specifically, Little Bubba, as he was a known friend and cruising buddy of Jarious McNiel. It was after the gun was turned in that the prosecution, aided by the Baldwin County Sheriff's Department's chief investigator, Hoss Mack, (now Sheriff) began discussing the notion that Jarious had an accomplice in the murder—his friend, Murray Lawrence, Jr.—who used a pistol to shoot Brandon Hastings at point black range to the left side of the head; according to Jarious's testimony during a deposition on July 31, 2003.
Damien Heard, half brother of Jarious, caught in possession of stolen property belonging to the decedent, Brandon Hastings, faced jail time in the Baldwin County jail. Damien Heard rolling over on his half brother, Jarious McNiel, put a tremendous amount of pressure on Jarious, as it became clear he was responsible for the disappearance and murder of Brandon Hastings. When Jarious realized he was facing the death penalty, he decided to cut “A Deal With the Devil” proposed by District Attorney David Whetstone. In exchange for telling what Whetstone called “the truth about what happened to Brandon Hastings” Jarious would get life, with eligibility for parole. That life-saving deal of truth constituted propagating the prosecutor's contrived notion that:
Little Bubba and Jarious conspired to rob and kill Brandon Hastings. Against the alibi of his girlfriend, Little Bubba in the early morning hours of April 6, 2003 drove Tonya Mixson's gold KIA from her driveway in Fairhope to a nebulous, unspecific back road leading to the beach and parked the car on the side of the road and lifted the hood and waited for Jarious to rendezvous as planned, with an unsuspecting Brandon. Jarious alleged he and Brandon arrived as pre-determined, to the staged scene where Little Bubba supposedly needed to jump start his car battery. Jarious said that they ambushed Brandon and in the struggle Little Bubba took a pistol and shot Brandon on the left side of his head. He explained they placed his body in the trunk, although this is doubtful, as there was a large speaker box normally there. He also said they drove to Mississippi and the two carried the body and placed it where it was found.
One of the biggest problems for the prosecution is that there was no visible blood on the white shirt or skin of the decedent, albeit the body had been exposed for many days. There was no bullet hole on the left side of Brandon's head. There was no entry wound found on what was the left of the neck, upper torso or head. There was no blood in the car where his gunshot-riddled, normally bleeding body rested in the back seat and/or trunk for some time period. There were no fingerprints found linking Little Bubba to the vehicle. There was no blood, period; which one would think would be present in an up close and personal shooting at point blank range. This is a considerable problem for the State, along with the fact that the forensic pathologist, who had 40 years of experience and boasted of conducting over 12,000 autopsies, stated more than once that the cause of death was asphyxiation by strangling, despite Prosecutor Whetstone's repeated attempts to lead him to iterate the contrary—that he was shot. Both the county and state death certificates reflect this assertion by the pathologist who testified—that the reason or cause of death was strangulation. Moreover, no bullet or casing was ever found, which is also critically important.
Many weeks after the alleged shooting Jarious McNiel brought investigators to the alleged crime scene where Little Bubba fatally shot Brandon. A thorough search of several hours was made of the area, producing no bullet, no casing, and only questionable weathered one and five dollar bills that were admitted into evidence. There were no incriminating finger prints of Little Bubba inside the car. A complete lack of blood inside the vehicle or on the body, not a single bullet, no bullet hole; and a devout insistence throughout the trial by the prosecution that a shooting at the hands of Little Bubba took place instead of a strangling, like the veteran pathologist testified, remain dubious concerns for the justice-minded, nearly two decades later.
What is more likely to have happened than not is:
Jarious, hard up for money, chose Brandon as an easy mark, because of his small stature and propensity to carry cash; and the fact that his car contained many sellable items. Jarious drove to Foley and parked his car and met Brandon, as planned between them. He conjured the story of the party among Michigan guys and gals, and how they might join them for a good time. After engaging him he lured Brandon to a dark place, likely somewhere not far from where he later led investigators. He maneuvered and got behind Brandon and choked him with a garrote of some sort, a thought supported by the pathologist's expert testimony. Further, scraping on Brandon's knee indicated he may have been in some sort of struggle before he died, which would have taken at least two minutes to affect by asphyxiation, according to the presiding pathologist of 40 years.
The speaker box given to Little Bubba and stored in the early morning hours of April 6, 2003, as a favor to his questionable running buddy Jarious, was normally in the trunk area of Brandon's car, the source of the kick-ass sound. Because of this, Brandon's body was likely in the back seat of his car during the ride from Foley to Fairhope, to Tonya Mixson's house, where Jarious tapped on the window, waking up a sleeping Little Bubba and her, in the process. Jarious at this time gives the speaker box to Little Bubba for safe keeping. He also asks him to help him get rid of a body. Little Bubba wants no part of that and sends him on his way and goes back to bed with Tonya, something she testified to in court, per her deal with Whetstone, negotiated by her attorney, future D.A., Hallie Dixon.
Jarious, no place else to go, heads to his apartment, where his girlfriend Cynthia Weston is asleep. Distraught from committing murder, he wakes her and explains what terrible thing he has done and that she now has a body to dispose of for him—and her. In love with Jarious after a troubled interracial relationship of more than two years, and wanting badly to help him and make it work, she agrees. She drives the body—now in the trunk, to a location she is familiar with, five miles from Interstate 10 near Gauthier, Mississippi—no random spot; and dumps the body, dragging it by the feet into place, conspicuously failing to rob it of the remaining gold ring, gold necklace and wrist watch—because she is not a criminal. She drives back to her apartment, turns the car over to Jarious and he parks it nearby, but safely away from the apartment where he and Cynthia lived. The next day Jarious met up with his half brother, Damien Heard. Together they stripped and abandoned Brandon's vehicle and returned to Baldwin County.
In the days following the body being found in Mississippi, Jarious learned how dire the situation was. Unless he cooperated, he would be up on murder one. Coincidentally, Jarious's mother worked for the Baldwin County Sheriffs Department. However, Jarious was caught. He was tied irrevocably to the murder. But, there was a chance for life with parole—if he cut a deal. Therefore, Jarious chose life instead of death and cut a deal with the prosecutor, David Whetstone. In return, Jarious agreed to embrace and tell the story about Little Bubba shooting Brandon in the head, so that Whetstone and his willing accomplices could put away for life without parole a second black man who dated white women; and send a clear, lasting message to the black community in Fairhope, Alabama: Remember: We do things different around here. Know your place! Also, it conveniently allowed Jarious to do the only gallant thing left: Cover for his girlfriend, Cynthia Weston, who disposed of the body for him and failed to steal the gold jewelry, which led to the decedent's quick identification via his class ring. By fingering Little Bubba as the trigger man who helped dispose of the body, Cynthia was protected by her man—who sold out Little Bubba, in order to do so.
The Fair Trial
The District Attorney in the case, David Whetstone, 60 years old at the time of the 2005 trial, began his opening statements to the jury, detailing a dastardly “Deal with the Devil,” he lamented, but felt was necessary in order to produce the truth—the truth about Little Bubba murdering Brandon Hastings with a gunshot.
The trial is laden with unfortunate instances of bias, prejudice and the continued overruling of the defense counsel, Willie Huntley, by the presiding Judge, Bob Wilters; who interestingly, is today Baldwin County's District Attorney. It is worth noting that Mr. Wilters was not elected to the position. He was chosen by Republican leaders in Baldwin County as their candidate. He had no opposition for what was an open seat, as the incumbent, Hallie Dixon—Miss Tonya Mixson's attorney, chose not to run for re-election. Wilters won by appointment—appointment by the machine.
Mr. Whetstone makes a strong case that Little Bubba snorts and casually deals cocaine to his friends and their friends; but his case for murder against Murray Lawrence, Jr. is circumstantial—at best. Whetstone parades a cavalcade of witnesses bent on revealing Little Bubba likes to snort coke, drink and smoke marijuana blunts, occasionally dealing to pay for things. The only evidence he provides is the impugned testimony of Jarious McNiel, a man who has cut “a deal with the Devil,” according to the prosecutor, to save himself from lethal injection. There is no physical evidence tying the accused to the crime. Neither his blood nor his fingerprints are found inside Brandon's vehicle. The story fashioned by the prosecution with the full cooperation of Jarious McNiel does not compute.
If Little Bubba had really shot Brandon in the neck there would have been blood everywhere—on Brandon's white tee shirt, on the rear bumper of the car, inside the back seat of the car, inside the trunk and in numerous other places the bleeding body would have come in contact with. Critically, no blood was ever found; nor was a bullet; a bullet hole in the skull or neck or a casing for said bullet that killed Brandon Hastings. Further, Little Bubbas' alibi, his girlfriend, Miss Tonya Mixson, sworn to tell the truth twice according to her deal arranged via her attorney with the prosecution, asserted Little Bubba was with her in bed that evening; and that he remained with her in bed throughout the critical early morning hours after Jarious McNiel left her residence, leading to her waking.
The state brought as evidence phone records and video surveillance from a convenience store outdoor surveillance camera that it said proved Jarious and Little Bubba planned and met on the country back road leading to the beach near this convenience store equipped with a hazy security camera. In 2003, video surveillance technology was just coming of age, and unfortunately much of the footage evidence submitted does little to make the Whetstone and Jarious's dubious case. Nothing conclusive is allowed as evidence, yet the prosecution insists that the video evidence proves their case—that Little Bubba conspired with Jarious to kill Brandon Hastings; that against the alibi he drove Tonya's KIA to a spot on a back road leading to the beach, opened the hood and waited for a supposed jump start. When he was joined by Jarious and Brandon, he used a gun and shot Brandon in the head, even though there is no physical evidence to corroborate the theory. These are perplexing consistencies—that the prosecution—throughout the two-week trial duration, continued to pound a square peg into a round hole, making every piece of evidence speciously fit their perverted version of the alleged crime. But it gets worse.
After two weeks of calling dozens of witnesses, the prosecution rested. The prosecutor and defense attorney approached the bench of Judge Wilters. According to the court reporter, Paula Morgan Smith, District Attorney David Whetstone informed Judge Wilters he was not calling any other witnesses. Wilters looked to Huntley and iterated that it was his understanding that the defense would be not be calling any witnesses, and would be resting its case, even though the proverbial ball was now in their court. It was, after all, Willie Huntley's turn to call witnesses for the defense of the accused—so as to provide an adequate defense. Judge Wilters, looking to Willie Huntley, asked if it was true. Huntley replied in the affirmative—that he would not be calling any witnesses to further defend his client. The former Auburn running back waived his turn on offense. The trial proceeded with closing remarks from both sides, and with Little Bubba never having a voice in his own defense: There were no character witnesses of loved ones rallying on Little Bubba's behalf; no blood stain expert testimony regarding the lack of blood evidence in the close-up shooting case; no re-examination of the facts through testimony contrasting the prosecution's shoehorned story of what happened. Little Bubba would get nothing—except life without parole.
In his closing arguments Whetstone reiterated the twisted logic of his “Deal with the Devil,” and presented his circumstantial case to the jury like it was the gospel truth. He reminded the panel of the presence of Brandon's distraught family bent on justice for the mindless killing of their beloved son. He reminded them of the heinous nature of the crime, how it left his tiny body ultimately decapitated in another state, the fodder of wild dogs; and he reminded them of one Jarious McNiel and the “Deal with the Devil” indicating his willing accomplice, Little Bubba Lawrence. Brandon Hastings was the victim of a shooting at the hands of Little Bubba, according to the only eyewitness, Jarious McNiel, a known counterfeiter and thief; hard up for money, coerced into a deal that sold out a friend. As it turned out, the deal was hardly one for Jarious, who also remains in prison, under much different life circumstances. Jarious is reportedly the resident “prison bitch” on his hall, the term for a practicing homosexual inside the prison walls. Once a feared bully, Jarious is now the bullied.
During closing arguments, Willie Huntley made what was tantamount to a hail Mary pass, after being handed the ball. It proved to be futile. He centered his late arguments on the circumstantial nature of the evidence, how there was not a single shred of physical evidence linking his client to the crime scene. He explained the testimony of strangulation by the veteran pathologist, the girlfriend alibi, the utter lack of any blood or fingerprints, bullets or casings, and the inconclusive testimony presented by the prosecution related to phone records and video surveillance, and in those efforts refuted the likelihood of the prosecution's story and presented a strong case for reasonable doubt; the threshold of robust, exculpatory evidence binding each jury member to acquit his client.
Nevertheless, it is hardly encouraging to a jury when the defense attorney rests his case after failing to call witnesses in a capital murder trial. Willie Huntley's intended inaction set the stage for the fall. The jury containing two blacks determined Little Bubba was guilty of first degree murder, without the possibility of parole, his fate sealed by a calamity of abject failures, as just one of the people of color serving could have hung the jury, forcing another trial.
Willie Huntley, Jr.
Willie Huntley, Jr. is both fortunate and privileged; one a result of the other. He is not your typical Alabama black man. Few men of color in Alabama have had a similar life. First, he is educated. A gifted athlete in his early days, he attended Auburn University on athletic scholarship and was a running back for the Tigers, wearing jersey number 37. In 1980, he graduated in political science and entered Cumberland Law School in Birmingham, Alabama. Four years later he graduated and passed the Alabama Bar that same year, 1984. Willie is also connected.
In Alabama it helps to be “in” or “in cahoots” with the the political machine that runs the state. Actually, it is everything; as in Alabama it is not what you know but who you know; and in this case, it made all the difference; because membership has its privileges, and there are always dues to pay for belonging—especially for a black man.
Shortly after graduating from Cumberland and passing the Alabama Bar, Huntley clerked for United States District Court Judge Robert Varner in Montgomery, Alabama. For the next two years from 1984 to 1986, he served as an assistant district attorney in Macon County Alabama, prosecuting criminal cases in District and Circuit Courts.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan appointed Jeff Sessions to serve as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, a post he held through three presidential terms. A nomination to the federal bench in 1986 crashed when allegations emerged that Sessions used racially insensitive language and targeted voting rights activists in the proverbial Black Belt.
Huntley claims an unsolicited phone call from Jeff Sessions in 1986, changed the arc of his career. At the time Sessions was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama for five years, having served as an assistant to that capacity from1975 to 1981. He also served as a special assistant prosecutor under Sessions when he served as Alabama Attorney General, from 1995 to 1997. That is the story he told 30 years later before the Judiciary Committee during the 2017 U.S. Attorney General confirmation hearings, serving as a character witness and endorser of then Senator Jeff Sessions, despite Sessions exaggerating his own civil rights record while actually making it harder on blacks through action and inaction. To Huntley's many black detractors, those who vehemently impugned his intentions on the Internet, airwaves and in print, an undeterred Huntley offered, “You know what I say to those who called me an Uncle Tom? I say thank you.”
Before agreeing to work for Sessions in Mobile, Alabama as an Assistant United States Attorney prosecuting civil rights violations, Huntley, asserted in testimony before the committee that he and his wife first had dinner in the State Capitol of Montgomery, Alabama over a three-hour period with Jeff Sessions, accompanied by his wife. It was during this meal that Huntley said he realized Sessions was no racist.
Huntley explained before the committee in January 2017 in reference to this episode that he and his wife were aware going into the dinner meeting with he and his wife that Sessions had a reputation for being a racist, as it was alleged he had been heard using the “N” word, joked about the Ku Klux Klan and called another black Assistant U.S. Attorney “boy.” Nevertheless, they left the dinner meeting, according to Huntley, concluding and believing Sessions was unequivocally “not a racist.” Huntley worked for Sessions five years until 1991, leaving what he described “the best job I ever held” to pursue a private practice. Huntley closed before the committee with, “Jeff Sessions will enforce and follow the laws of the United States evenhandedly, equally and with justice for all. Jeff Sessions will adhere to the Justice Department Motto 'Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur' or 'Who prosecutes on behalf of justice.'”
At the confirmation hearing, United States Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative John Lewis of Georgia, (deceased July 2020) were concerned, as it was known Sessions voted against measures aimed at criminalizing attacks on gays as hate crimes and the Violence Against Women Act. They worried he would not aggressively protect the rights of the marginalized underclass.
“We need someone who is going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for the people who have been discriminated against,” representative John Lewis said. “We’ve made progress, but we’re not there yet,” Lewis added.
As a black man from Alabama, Willie Huntley Jr. admitted a deep reverence for departed civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, an organizer of the landmark marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Huntley obviously felt the tension when he found himself in the same Senate hearing room as Lewis, appealing to opposite sides of the spectrum.
“When he walked through the door, I melted,” Huntley recalled. “I was thinking, ‘This man shook hands with Martin Luther King Jr.,’ and I was just in awe.”
The fight for Sessions' confirmation between two very different men, Lewis and Huntley, from the same Southern state, was a prelude to history in the making. Prior, no sitting senator (Booker) had ever testified against a Senate colleague (Sessions) in their confirmation hearings for a Cabinet position. It was unprecedented.
“I believe, like perhaps all of my colleagues in the Senate, that in the choice between standing with Senate norms and standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for my country, I will always choose conscience and country,” Senator Cory Booker stated. He clarified. “The arc of the moral universe does not just curve toward justice, we must bend it,” Booker declared, borrowing from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2017, after Jeff Sessions was confirmed as United States Attorney General, he referred a $250 million fraud case involving a Mobile, Alabama-based disaster recovery business and the Honduran Government's post-Hurricane Mitch efforts to restore life quality to the area, to his trusted character witness from Lower Alabama, Mr. Willie Huntley, Jr., attorney at law.
It should be noted that after the trial was over, the dismal verdict rendered, Willie Huntley filed a Motion 32, which is a legal measure used by an Alabama lawyer to declare the fact that he has not provided his counsel an adequate defense. The measure was summarily rejected by Judge Bob Wilters, foiling forthwith the paving of any early avenue to rightful appeal.
Also, the feud between Booby Jack and the local cops continued long after Little Bubba was sent away to the penitentiary. In 2011, Bobby Jack was arrested outside of his house for mistakenly calling out to a passing police car, as he thought it was an officer he knew. It resulted in his arrest and incarceration; and a subsequent lawsuit against the City of Fairhope.
Today, Willie Huntley counts his money; but Little Bubba sits where he has alone for 18 years, in an underfunded, inhumane prison setting propagated by a corrupt, failed system. He is not the only black man serving a life sentence in the State of Alabama for a crime he did not commit. A system this evil and out of control is capable of unlimited unspeakable things. There are undoubtedly other victims. Their stories too should come forward. But for now, this one deserves our immediate, and full attention, as it is correctable.
There are many bad actors in this high profile case who were promoted afterward: Prosecutor David Whetstone, Judge Bob Wilters (Now D.A.), Lead Investigator, now Baldwin County Sheriff, Hoss Mack, Officer Steve Griffis in Fairhope became police chief and of course, Willie Huntley, attorney for the accused, the feigning barrister who conspired to frame an innocent man for murder, became a favored machine hack. The facts in the case fully support this notion. Each of these men must be held fully accountable for affecting this travesty of justice, as evil flourishes when good men do nothing.
Little Bubba deserves a new trial. Little Bubba deserves his freedom.
On behalf of Murray Lawrence, Sr. a.ka. “Booby Jack”
and his son, the accused and wrongly convicted, Murray Lawrence, Jr. a.k.a “Little Bubba”
Link to trial transcripts at the Ripp Report in Fairhope, AL
Allam, Hannah. “Jeff Sessions' black defender unfazed by 'Uncle Tom' Label.” Thestate.com. January 24, 2017.
Gore, Leada, & Yurkinin, Amy. Al.com. “Jeff Sessions out as AG on Trump’s Request;
Watch Sessions depart amid applause, thanks.” November 7, 2018.
Huntley, William. Official Transcript, United States Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings, Jeff Sessions Confirmation, January 2017. Judiciary.senate.gov. Accessed July 24, 2020.
Lawrence, Murray, Sr. Interview. July 2020.
Matthews, Gloria L. Phone Interview. August 2020.
Viswanatha, Aruna. “Cory Booker Testifies Against Colleague Jeff Sessions;
New Jersey lawmaker breaks taboo in speaking against fellow senator.” The Wall Street Journal. January 14, 2017.
Watkins, James. Phone Interview, July 2020.
Trial Transcripts totaling 2,000-plus pages.
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