Convicted Facebook murderers were in court this week seeking new trials
BY KEVIN GREEN
The Johnson County Facebook Murders is a made-for-Hollywood real-life tragedy beset with many plot twists and convolutions that resulted in the murders of a young family, orphaned a child, and ripped a community apart.
In the early morning of Jan. 31, 2012, a neighbor had found Bill Payne shot in the head and his throat slashed. Billie Jean Hayworth had also been shot in the head while clutching the couple’s newborn baby.
The child survived the carnage and was found still in his mother’s arms unharmed.
The killings were dubbed locally as the Johnson County “Facebook Murders” as it becomes widely speculated that Payne and Hayworth unfriended Jenelle Potter because of her strange behavior on the site.
The Investigation and Convictions
The subsequent investigation led to officials charging Marvin “Buddy” Potter, Barbara Potter’s husband, with killing the couple.
The state adduced that Jenelle Potter met Payne and Hayworth through a family member, and Jenelle developed a crush on Bill Payne.
Bill was in a happy relationship with Billie Jean Hayworth, and together they had a child.
Bill Payne’s cousin, Jamie Curd, expressed an interest in dating Jenelle. Curd would later assist Marvin Potter in the murders.
According to the state’s prosecution theory, Jenelle Potter tricked Marvin Potter into killing Payne and Hayworth by claiming she was receiving threatening messages from the pair on Facebook and another obscure site called Topix.
Jenelle also creates a mysterious (and fictitious) friend named Chris. Chris was a CIA agent. The agent claimed that he cared about Jenelle and wanted to kill Bill and Billie because he had heard about their plans to kidnap and rape Jenelle.
However, “Chris” always had assassination assignments in far-away lands, but he could ensure whoever took the couple out would be “taken care of.”
They might have gotten away with it but for the sharp eyes of a TBI agent and a local county sheriff who pieced the puzzle together.
Barbara Potter, 69, and her daughter, Jenelle Potter, 38, were charged for being criminally responsible for the reportedly heinous double murder in May 2015.
Appeals and Post-Conviction
Since their trials, the mother and daughter have filed several petitions while housed in the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville to get the convictions thrown out; all have been largely unsuccessful.
The post-conviction option is available to defendants that have already been through the appellate process.
The petitions filed by mother and daughter were received and filed by the Washington County Clerk’s office on Dec. 27, 2020.
The result was a two-day hearing by Senior Judge William Acree.
Acree heard testimony Tuesday from the trial attorneys, and Marvin Potter, 71. Marvin Potter is serving two consecutive life sentences for the slayings.
Post-conviction attorney Grace Studer represented Jenelle. Scott Shults provided counsel for Barbara. They both made their closing remarks in the case on Wednesday.
Judge Acree said he would take the matter under advisement and render a decision later in the year.
The Elizabethton Star spoke with Shults after the hearings. Shults explained that after defendants have exhausted all their appeals, they may bring a post-conviction writ; however, the court is very limited in what issues they may hear.
“We raised, specifically, ineffective assistance of counsel,” he said.
“..Trial counsel [Randy Fallin] for my client also represented Marvin Potter at his trial…and he still represented Marvin on appeal while he was representing Barbara at her trial. So, our argument centered on torn allegiances that he had to hold.”
Shults also said that there was a writ of coram nobis filed in the case by trial counsel. The writ sought to correct the record that there was a time when Marvin and Barbara Potter, along with Jamie Curd, had met with the victims at a convenience store.
“They were starting to figure out: wait a minute, you did not say those things [threats to Jenelle]. No, we did not say those things, but you all said these things. No, we didn’t; you did.
“Of course, Mr. Curd, being in the middle of it…wanted to get out of there as quick as possible. But that fits in the defense’s theory at trial that Mr. Curd was the instigator [instead of Jenelle].
“Mr. Curd was this fictitious CIA agent. Marvin Potter forbade the love of Jenelle to Mr. Curd. Mr. Curd wanted to earn her hand. So, he creates this conflict, and he can be the white knight to defend Jenelle and get Marvin’s approval to her hand.”
While Studer was not available for comment, the record established at the hearing that Jenelle Potter has the mental capacity of a fourth-grader, yet the state had portrayed her as the mastermind that convinces Marvin to kill Payne and Hayworth.
Studer also asserted effective assistance of counsel claims, particularly concerning Cameron Hyder.
Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks said there is a high burden for post-conviction relief because of the legal principles of finality.
When asked about Jenelle’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Brooks said, “they have alleged one of the attorneys made mistakes in filing for a motion for a new trial for Jenelle Potter that limited her appellate issues. I don’t feel they have carried their burden to show those other appellate issues that weren’t reviewed would have led to a different result.”
Brooks, when asked about the idea of Curd being the actual instigator, said that it was not an issue for a post-conviction hearing. However, the pages and pages of email recovered in this case, many of which came to Jenelle’s email address, would serve to refute that theory.