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Public Notices

April 20, 2014

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Life, Without Parole: Donnie Joe Hensley Sentenced For 2004 Murder Of His Sister

Sun Photo by Anthony J. Snyder

Donnie Joe Hensley, shown third from left above, stands with his defense attorneys William Louis Ricker, left, and Kim Miller, second from left, as he awaits a jury's verdict in his first-degree murder trial on Wednesday afternoon. An unidentified sheriff's deputy is shown in the background at right. The jury found Hensley, 18, guilty of premeditated first-degree murder and recommended a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Judge James E. Beckner imposed that sentence at the end of a Wednesday afternoon sentencing hearing.

Originally published:
Last modified: 2009-04-01 12:10:13

A Greene County Criminal Court jury, on Wednesday afternoon, found Donnie Joe Hensley, 18, guilty of first-degree murder in the May 2, 2004, stabbing death of his sister, Billie Jo Hensley, 18.

The verdict came at the close of a two-day trial that began Tuesday at the Greene County Courthouse.

After a separate sentencing hearing that followed the 4:25 p.m. guilty verdict, the same jury of six men and six women recommended that Donnie Joe Hensley receive a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"We the jury unanimously agree that the defendant (Donnie Joe Hensley) should be sentenced to prison for life without the possibility of parole," the jury foreman read aloud to the court about 5:40 p.m. after the jury returned from deciding what punishment to recommend.

Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner shortly thererafter imposed the life-without-parole sentence the jury had recommended.

The judge gave Hensley's defense attorneys 30 days to file a motion for a new trial.
At the request of lead defense attorney William Louis Ricker, a hearing on the expected motion for a new trial was scheduled for June 13 in Morristown.

The judge also told Hensley that he had a right to appeal both the jury's verdict and the sentence imposed in the case.

Could Not Get Death Penalty

Although he was tried as an adult for his role in his sister's death, Donnie Joe Hensley had not been eligible for the death penalty under Tennessee law because he was a juvenile when Billie Jo Hensley's murder took place.

But the jury also could have recommended a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. That would have meant he would have been eligible for release from prison on parole after he served 51 years, District Attorney General Berkeley Bell said on Tuesday.

But with a life-without-parole sentence, Donnie Joe Hensley will never be released from prison, District Attorney Bell said.

Character Witnesses Testify

During the sentencing hearing that preceded the jury foreman's announcement, Donnie Joe Hensley's defense attorneys, who called no witnesses during the trial, called two of the Hensley family's neighbors to testify about the Donnie Joe Hensley they knew before his sister's murder.

One neighbor, Beverly Overbay, testified that she had known Donnie Joe for 10 years, as he often had come to her home as a boy.

She noted that he often brought his sister, Billie Jo, with him.

Asked by defense attorney Kim Miller how Donnie Joe had acted toward his sister,
Overbay said he had been "protective" of Billie Jo Hensley.

She also described Donnie Joe Hensley as "kind of a nervous child" who seemed to "crave attention."

Overbay testified that she didn't feel Donnie Joe had received the attention he needed at home as a child.

Kevin Booher, another neighbor, said he had known Donnie Joe Hensley for seven years and that Donnie Joe had often visited his home.

Booher said he had never seen Donnie Joe become angry with or mistreat his sister.
In response to questions, Booher said Donnie Joe Hensley had volunteered to mow his lawn when his lawn-mower broke down and had helped him catch his runaway dog.

Both Overbay and Booher told the jury they felt Donnie Joe Hensley deserved to receive a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, which would allow him to get out of prison some day.

Donnie Joe Hensley had been 16 when his sister was stabbed and slashed to death at her family's Wilkerson Road home on the afternoon of Sunday, May 2, 2004.
151 Stab Wounds

During testimony on Wednesday, Dr. William McCormick, a forensic pathologist from the Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, said Billie Jo Hensley had bled to death as a result of having suffered 151 separate stab wounds and cuts.

During Tuesday's trial proceedings, one of Hensley's three co-defendants, Hugh Alexander Williams, testified that Donnie Joe Hensley had planned the murder in an attempt to eliminate any witnesses to a theft of drugs and cash that he believed were stored in a basement room of the Hensley residence that was occupied by Steve Myers, the boyfriend of the Hensley siblings' mother.

Williams also testified that he also took part in Billie Jo Hensley's murder last year. He told the jury that he stabbed the North Greene High School senior an estimated "50 to 60" times while helping Donnie Joe Hensley kill her.

Also, Williams told the jury that two other people, Latonya R. Crockett, 27, and Michael D. Sellers, 28, both of 406 Elk St., had played roles in the conspiracy that led to Billie Jo Hensley's murder.

Crockett and Sellers, Williams testified, were to hide Donnie Joe Hensley after he killed his sister, mother and her boyfriend. They also were to receive $1,000 each in payment from the $15,000 that Donnie Joe Hensley expected to find hidden in a locked basement room of the Hensley residence, Williams testified.

Williams testified that he was to have received $3,000 from the proceeds, while Donnie Joe was to keep the balance of the money and a quantity marijuana that
Donnie Joe believed was hidden in the locked basement room.

He claimed that Donnie Joe Hensley planned to kill his sister on May 2, 2004 while his mother and her boyfriend were away on trip to Kentucky to play bingo, and then to kill Lena Hensley and her boyfriend, Steve Myers, when they returned home.

District Attorney Comments

After the sentence was imposed and court was adjourned, District Attorney General Bell told reporters the Hensley murder case had been "one of the worst" in which he had ever been involved.

"It wasn't made any better by the fact that it was committed by a juvenile at the time," he said. "There was a great deal of emotion that ran through the trial because of the age of the victim and the defendant."

Also in answer to questions from reporters, Bell described Donnie Joe Hensley as the "leader" of the conspiracy that resulted in his sister's death.

"He was the leader," Bell said. "He was the one, who up to the final minute, was trying to get out of accepting responsibility for what he had done. He planned it, executed it and, when it all went awry at the end, he came up with a plan to try to get everybody out of it."

Bell said Donnie Joe Hensley had claimed he acted in self-defense and had fought being transferred to adult court for trial.

"I don't know what would have happened to him as a juvenile, but he certainly wouldn't be serving life without parole," Bell said.

Bell thanked the jury that heard the case.

"I know that this was difficult (for the jurors)," he said. "They did an outstanding job, and we're very proud of them."

He also complemented the Greene County Sheriff's Department for its work in the case.

"I would like to thank them for all they did," he said.

Williams to Plead

Asked about the legal status of Donnie Joe Hensley's co-defendants in the wake of the trial, the district attorney general said Hugh Alexander Williams "will enter a (guilty) plea whenever it's set by the court."

Bell said a plea agreement reached with Williams in exchange for his "truthful" testimony against Donnie Joe Hensley calls for Williams to receive a sentence of 25 years in prison on a guilty plea to a reduced charge of second-degree murder.

In addition, he said, Williams is to receive a second 25-year sentence on a guilty plea to a charge of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

The two 25-year sentences, Bell said, are to be served consecutively (one after the other). Even though the total sentence is 50 years, the district attorney general said, Williams will be eligible for release on parole after he serves "a little over 32 years" in prison.

Sellers, Crockett to Plead

Asked about the legal status of co-defendants Latonya Crockett and Michael D.
Sellers, District Attorney Bell said he had charged the pair last month with first-degree felony murder as a result of their involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in Billie Jo Hensley's death.

But he said he also had extended to them an offer to be allowed to plead guilty, with the court's permission, to a charge of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and to receive the maximum sentence of 25 years.

"The evidence in the case bore out that that was their involvement," he said. "They conspired to commit first-degree murder."

Bell explained that Crockett and Sellers had agreed to testify during Donnie Joe Hensley's trial as part of the plea agreement.

"I did not need them, it turned out, in the case," he said. "But they were prepared to carry out their end of the bargain."

Bell said Crockett and Sellers, who had been charged on April 28, waived a preliminary hearing in Greene County Criminal Court on Wednesday.

Their cases now will move to Greene County Criminal Court, the district attorney general said.
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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