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BREAKING NEWS: Fourney found guilty of manslaughter

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By Travis Jenkins

A Chester jury needed just over an hour to find Melvin Fourney guilty on charges of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime in connection with the 2015 stabbing death of Leonard “Buster” Hayes.

There really wasn’t any doubt that Fourney stabbed his younger cousin who was also his roommate, in the chest. He admitted to a 911 operator that he’d done so and confessed again as he was questioned by police a day later. Assistant Public Defender William Frick tried to convince the jury that his client acted in self-defense.

Day two of the trial opened Wednesday with testimony from Fourney’s daughter-in-law Teresa Fourney. She and her husband James Fourney were called over to the house shortly after the stabbing occurred. The two passed Edward King Nelson, who testified on Tuesday that he saw Fourney stab Hayes while the victim was seated on a couch. It was Teresa Fourney who called 911 and reported the stabbing while her husband went to go fetch his brother. She said her father-in-law never said what happened beyond the fact that “he had stabbed Buster…he got tired of him.” She frequently ran errands for her father-in-law (who doesn’t see well and rarely ventured far from home) and had known both he and the victim for years. She said she never saw them physically fight and was never told by her father-in-law that he was afraid of Fourney. She said the two did occasionally argue over “little simple stuff.” When questioned by Frick, she said the house was her father-in-law’s and that he paid the rent and most of the bills but let Hayes stay with him. She said her father-in-law was a good person who was good to her and her husband and she’d never known him to be violent in any regard. She did say that on occasion he would want Hayes to get out of his house.

The next witness for the state was Dr. Robert Thomas, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Hayes. He detailed that the victim suffered a single stab wound to the upper left chest that penetrated the right and left ventricle of Hayes’ heart, causing him to bleed out, leading to his death. Thomas estimated a person sustaining that wound would die within one to five minutes. Graphic photos of the autopsy were shown to the jury over the objections of Frick, who claimed they would be prejudicial and that Thomas was capable of describing the wound without using visual evidence. Sixth Circuit Deputy Solicitor Candice Lively successfully argued that the pictures were necessary to demonstrate the level of violence of the act to the jury. One picture showed that one of Hayes’ ribs was actually cut from his sternum. The wound, inflicted by a steak knife, showed evidence that Fourney either twisted the blade once he stabbed Hayes or twisted or pulled down on the knife as he pulled it out. The angle of the stab wound was right to left and downward, consistent with what would be expected of a wound inflicted on someone who is seated by someone who is standing, which is what Nelson testified happened.

A toxicology report revealed that Hayes had a blood alcohol level of 0.21 at the time of his death. The State of South Carolina considers a driver intoxicated at .08. There was also cocaine and cocaine metabolites in his system. Cocaine metabolite is one of the substances left behind as the body metabolizes cocaine. However, the presence of actual cocaine indicates that Hayes had likely done cocaine (it was later said he smoked crack cocaine) that day and was still under its influence.

Frick pointed out that Fourney, in a police interview video played in court Tuesday, claimed to have been “snagged” with the knife on the wrist by Hayes (though he did not say Fourney attacked him or that he even feared he would). Frick posited the theory that Fourney may have taken the knife, once Hayes sat it aside and went to the couch to eat, stood over the victim and told him he wasn’t to do that again. Maybe, he said, Hayes, drunk and high, jumped up and impaled himself on the knife. Thomas could not say definitively that the force came from Fourney’s end and that such a scenario was at least plausible.

An officer with the State Law Enforcement Division said the blood found on the knife blade belonged to Hayes and that there was no mixture, meaning none of Fourney’s blood was detected. Frick countered that not all the blood on the knife was actually tested, meaning that the test swab could have come from a portion that simply did not contain Fourney’s blood, which could have been present if Hayes did “snag” him with it.

 

Closing Arguments

 

In his closing arguments, Frick laid out his previously stated possible scenario, in which an inebriated Hayes jumped up from the couch to “bow up” on Fourney and impaled himself. It was also possible he said, that with Hayes allegedly having already nicked Fourney with the knife, and under the influence of both drugs and alcohol, Fourney could have feared for his safety and acted accordingly. He noted that everyone who was asked about Fourney said he was a good person who never demonstrated any violent tendencies. He said Fourney didn’t even know how badly Hayes was wounded, noting that he’s heard on the police interview tape saying he thought he only got him “in the shirt.” He may not have known how badly Hayes was bleeding because the victim was wearing a dark-colored shirt. Once he realized it was worse than that, he called for help. Frick also said that if Fourney intended to violently murder Hayes, he would have stabbed him more than once.

“He wasn’t doing anything but exercising his right to defend himself,” Frick said.

Frick also questioned why only blood from the knife and none from multiple spots on the floor was tested. Perhaps some of that was Fourney’s blood, brought on by Hayes having cut him first. He also asked the jury to consider Fourney’s age and told them to ask themselves whether he was even physically capable of inflicting such vicious wounds on someone more than 20 years his junior who was in better physical condition.

Lively said no one other than Fourney himself ever said anything about Hayes having cut him, including Nelson, who witnessed the stabbing. She referenced testimony from Tuesday in which Hayes’ mother (who is related to Fourney and has known him most of her life) testified that Fourney called her a month before the stabbing and told her he was going to kill her son (which she disregarded at the time). She reminded the jury that Nelson testified that he saw Fourney stab Hayes. The two had been arguing, but there was no physical altercation of any kind and Hayes did not stand at any point, eliminating the possibility that he impaled himself. She said in speaking to a 911 dispatcher and to law enforcement officers he admitted to the stabbing and admitted that at the time he was not fearful of Hayes.

“When are you going to see evidence of self defense?” Lively asked. “He’s only claiming it now, two-and-a-half years later. He never said he was scared and never said he was being attacked…that’s every element of self-defense.”

Lively said Fourney is “not a small man” and that there was no mention of him having arthritis or other medical ailments. She said he most certainly was capable of inflicting a deadly knife wound, as he had detailed in a police interview that he used both hands to plunge the knife into Hayes’ chest. Even if he had nicked Fourney with the knife, he sat it down and went to the couch unarmed.

“Is that enough to make a reasonable person pick up the knife and stab someone? He told you himself why he did it…he was tired of (Hayes),” Lively said.

Lively also asked the jury to remember how calm Fourney sounded on the 911 tape. At one point, he took the phone from his daughter-in-law and said “Hello, how are you?” to the dispatcher. That is not the voice, she said, of a person who was upset or had been attacked and feared for their life. She also pointed out to the jury that she’d hid nothing about Hayes, including his intoxication and the fact that the crime scene was “less than perfect” in terms of how it was processed.

“Because I want you to have the whole picture,” she said.

 

Sentencing

 

Frick asked for a directed verdict of innocent from Judge Brian Gibbons, which was denied. The jury was given the option of finding Fourney guilty of murder or a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter (Frick’s motion to have involuntary manslaughter offered as an option was denied by Gibbons). After just over one hour, the jury found Fourney guilty of voluntary manslaughter and the weapons charge. Lively said the family of Hayes “was OK with a deal” being struck, but had wanted the matter to go trial in the name of justice. They did not speak prior to the sentencing but were present for the entire trial.

Fourney is now 70 and has a relatively clean record, with one arrest for disorderly conduct and one for DUI, both of which were more than 25 years ago. Frick said Fourney was the most consistent client he’s ever had, with his story never changing. He said Fourney never actually told him he stabbed Hayes in self-defense, that he’s simply used that as a line of defense. Fourney did a little jail time shortly after his arrest but had been on house arrest for just over two years awaiting the trial.

“This was out of character for him. He viewed Mr. Hayes as his son…and this has hurt him greatly. He wishes he could take it back,” said Frick, who acknowledged the state had been “very generous” in its negotiations.

Fourney was asked by Gibbons if he had anything to say and only offered “that’s about it.” When asked, he did say he was a retired state employee who had operated heavy equipment for a living.

Gibbons noted that the sentencing range for voluntary manslaughter is extremely broad, going from two to 30 years. He ultimately decided to sentence Fourney to 10 years in prison on the voluntary manslaughter charge (with credit for his time on house arrest) and five on the weapons charge, though the two will run concurrently.