Alcovy Superior Court Judge Eugene Benton agreed Wednesday to a continuance, allowing John Jody Blackwell’s attorney time to prepare for his client’s attempt to rescind his guilty plea in the 2009 murder of Epsie Ewing, 65, of Loganville. The judge will now hear the case for withdrawal on Sept. 10.
Blackwell, 23, is one of three Monroe men currently serving sentences for their part in the murder. He pleaded guilty on June 6 and was sentenced by Benton to serve life plus five years. The sentence does allow for parole at the end of his sentence. However, he is now asking to withdraw that guilty plea and face a jury.
But for Ewing’s family it is just prolonging the agony.
“It’s like it is starting up all over again, I mean it’s already been five years,” said Ewing’s sister, Faye Evans. She, along with several other members of Ewing’s family, had traveled to Monroe for the hearing. “This is just not something that I was prepared for. I had put it on the back burner and then to get that call it’s like waking up to a nightmare. She deserves justice – the family deserves justice.”
Alcovy Circuit Court District Attorney, Layla Zon, had argued unsuccessfully against continuing the proceeding on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday. She spoke to the family as they left, saying that such a withdrawal was not standard practice.
“This is unusual – the whole case is unusual,” Zon said.
On May 21, 2009, Blackwell, Barry Marquez Partee and Cory Butler had gone to the Loganville home of Ewing and her husband, C.F. Ewing, with the intent to rob them. During the commission of the crime, both of the Ewings were beaten. Epsie Ewing died the following month as a result of her injuries. Blackwell and Partee were both seniors at Monroe Area High School at the time. All three men were arrested within a week of the attack and faced the death penalty if found guilty.
Partee pleaded guilty to his involvement in the murder on June 4 and was sentenced to a total of 30 years, to serve 12, and a total of $6,000 in fines.
Last year, Butler had waived his right to a jury trial in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table. He was found guilty by Benton in a bench trial and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. However, he too is petitioning for a new trial.
Blackwell was the last of the defendants sentenced after a guilty plea, but he has now retained counsel claiming that his attorneys were not in possession of all the facts and that one of them was drunk. Covington attorney Ellis Millsaps was released from the case after turning up for court allegedly drunk the day that Blackwell pleaded guilty. At the time, Benton got assurances from Blackwell that he was comfortable being represented by his other attorney, Dennis Francis. Millsaps was dismissed from the case and was later arrested and charged with contempt.
Although Zon had argued against the continuance, she conceded that it was likely allowed “out of an abundance of caution.” Blackwell’s attorney, David J. Farnham, also asked that Partee be called to testify. Partee got a lesser sentence and Farnham is arguing that he was, in fact, more culpable than Blackwell. Farnham also asked that Mike Westbrooks, the former Loganville Police officer who had investigated the case, be called to testify.
Zon objected and argued that the purpose of the hearing was not to re-try the case but to decide whether Blackwell’s guilty plea had been entered freely and in accordance with the law. She said there was no need for Partee or Westbrooks to be called – or for there to be a continuance.
“None of that has any bearing on whether or not (Blackwell) made an educated decision to plead guilty. Defense is asking to revisit the case,” Zon said, going on to note that Blackwell’s DNA was at the scene and he had implicated himself by passing a note to another prisoner admitting that he was there. “We did not have the same on Partee.”
Zon said they also had the surviving witness, C.F. Ewing’s, testimony that it was Blackwell who was beating him while Butler was beating C.F.’s wife, Epsie.
Farnham said that Blackwell was disputing the facts as they were presented to him and that had he been in possession of all of the facts he would not have pleaded guilty.
“He sat five years awaiting trial so if you could – give him until Sept. 10,” Farnham asked of the judge.
Zon assured the family that even if the judge agreed to let Blackwell withdraw his plea at the hearing on Sept. 10, all it meant was that it would then go to trial.
“He’s not getting out. It just means he will be brought back here to Walton County and we will prepare for a trial,” Zon said.