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Jury 'just couldn't make it' 100 percent

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

rclawrence@bellsouth.net

Pretty rough. That’s how one of the jurors who pondered the fate of accused murderer Leon Houston described the deliberating process.

“We just couldn’t come together with a full, 100-percent verdict,” Ernest Bilbrey said. “We tried and tried and tried, just couldn’t make it.”

After two days of deliberating, the jury announced that it was hopelessly deadlocked Sunday afternoon.

Judge James “Buddy” Scott declared a mistrial.

“The last thing anybody wants to do is come out to the judge and people and say we cannot reach a decision at this point,” Houston juror Robert Hood said. “That took a long time to make sure that’s what everybody wanted to do.”

The jury consisted of six men and six women. Scott chose the final 12 from a pool of 16 by randomly picking names out of a bright blue plastic coffee container. Even though they couldn’t reach a verdict, Bilbrey and Hood said jurors got along.

“I enjoyed being with the people there in the jury room and all, but we just could not come together,” Bilbrey said.

Over the course of the two-week trial, the jury saw more than 200 exhibits and heard seven days of testimony. Dissecting it all to reach a unanimous verdict was difficult for the jury.

“People just see things in different light, different view points based on how they saw it presented or how they understood it presented or how they’ve experienced things,” Hood said. “It just depends on the individual.”

“It’s just a difficult situation,” he added.

Houston was charged with two counts of first-degree premeditated murder and one count of felony murder in the deaths of Roane County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Jones and his ride-along passenger Mike Brown.

The judge’s instructions gave the jury the option to convict on several lesser charges.

Bilbrey said that was something the jury considered.

“Some of them would not go down more than one time and some would not vote guilty none of the times,” Bilbrey said.

During the jury selection process and throughout the trial, Scott reminded the jurors that Houston and his defense team were not required to prove anything.

The burden of proof was on the state and special prosecutor Robert “Gus” Radford to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

From Bilbrey’s point of view, that didn’t happen.

“To be honest, I don’t think the state made their case,” Bilbrey said.

Hood declined to share his thoughts on the evidence with the Roane County News.

“For me to try to come out and say here’s what I see and I think and all that, I don’t really feel it’s a good idea to get into all that discussion,” he said.

Houston would whisper to his lawyers from time to time, but for the most part he just sat quietly at the defense table while the jury was in the courtroom.

“I felt sorry for him,” Bilbrey said. “He was just pale as a dead person. I never knew the man and had never seen him before until I saw him over there.”

Bilbrey said it was not sympathy for Houston that influenced him, but mostly the state’s evidence, which Bilbrey described as having something “screwy about it.”

Jones and Brown died in a shootout that took place outside of Houston’s home on Barnard Narrows Road. Jones, Brown, Leon Houston and his brother, Rocky, all fired shots in the shootout.

Radford, who conceded that none of the fatal shots were fired by Leon Houston, contended that Jones and Brown were ambushed.

Radford presented as evidence the location of shell casings that were found at the scene.

“It just didn’t really sit well with me,” Bilbrey said.

At 82 years old, Bilbrey was the oldest member of the 12-person panel. Now that his jury service is over, he said he’s looking forward to catching up on some household chores.

“I need to get back to doing the work around the home here, mowing and painting, those type things,” Bilbrey said.