Knife at center of controversy in murder case

By David Hedges, Publisher

Lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense became witnesses Friday during a hearing over evidence in a pending murder case.

A missing knife that may have been used to cut off the pinky finger of the murder victim, perhaps after he was already dead, is at the center of the controversy. The attorneys are arguing about who knew what, and when they knew it.

The trial of Raymond Elswick, 42, of Spencer was to get underway last week. Elswick is one of three indicted for murder in the 2005 death of Daniel Burns.

The other two suspects, husband and wife Joey and Crystal Hicks, are in jail after entering plea bargains to lesser charges. He is serving 15 years for voluntary manslaughter and 1-to-5 years for conspiracy. She is serving a year for involuntary manslaughter and 1-to-5 years on two counts of conspiracy.

The trio was accused of administering a fatal beating to the 51-year-old Burns after Crystal Hicks alleging caught him touching her 9-year-old daughter inappropriately. The beating began at the Hicks residence on Market Street, according to police, and continued as the three suspects drove Burns around in the back of the Hicks' car. Burns' body was eventually dumped along a rural road, after his pinky finger was cut off with a knife.

Where that knife is now remains part of the mystery.

Elswick's trial was supposed to start Tuesday of last week, but after another witness was identified the trial was put on hold.

John Manis Richards, 43, of Grantsville, had shared a cell with Joey Hicks and said Hicks spoke to him about the case.

Instead of starting the trial, Roane prosecutor Mark Sergent and Elswick's court-appointed defense attorney, Lee Benford, spent part of last Tuesday questioning Richards.

Afterward, Benford told Judge Tom Evans that Richards claimed Hicks told him he still had the knife used to cut off Burns' finger when police brought him to jail after his arrest. Benford said Hicks had also shared other information about the crime with Richards.

Although sources said the knife may have been released by the jail to a relative of Joey Hicks, Sergent would only say this week that the matter remained under investigation.

Benford filed a motion asking the charges against Elswick be dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct. Benford said Sergent failed to disclose Richards' claims to have information relating to the case for more than a year.

Sergent denies the allegations of misconduct and said he turned over all the information he had.

Richards was in jail on methamphetamine charges from Calhoun County when he allegedly spoke with Joey Hicks. Those charges were later dropped after State Police said the evidence was inadvertently thrown out.

Benford said Calhoun prosecutor Matthew Minney knew of Richards' claims and faxed the information to Sergent in November 2005. Benford said Sergent never disclosed that information to the defense, as required by the court.

Sergent called himself as a witness Friday and said he never received the information, and denied withholding any evidence from the defense.

In the hearing to determine if any prosecutorial misconduct had occurred, Benford called Richards, Richards' former attorney, John Oshoway and Minney, to testify.

Richards said Hicks had discussed the case with him while they were in jail, although he did not go into any detail about their discussions.

Oshoway, one of the lawyers Richards had before the charges against him were dismissed, said he had not spoken to Sergent about any conversations Richards had with Hicks.

Minney said he did have some information about Richards' claims, and thought he had faxed that to Sergent. He said he did not recall talking to Sergent about the information.

Benford also took the stand Friday and said he had not received evidence from the prosecutor in a timely manner.

Sergent said he turned over any information he had to the defense as soon as he received it.

Evans did not immediately rule on the request for a dismissal, and gave each side time to file written briefs in the case.

Evans did set a new trial date of Nov. 27.