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Willis to represent himself in murder, mutilation trial

Becky Campbell • Apr 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — He’s charged with the most serious crime, facing the state’s harshest punishment, and now Howard Hawk Willis will face a jury alone.

Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown ruled Thursday that Willis, 57 and facing the death penalty if convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the October 2002 deaths of Adam Chrismer and Samantha Leming, a teenage couple from Georgia, has wasted enough time finding ways to get rid of competent lawyers to represent him.

“The conclusion of the court is you have grievously manipulated the constitutional right to counsel — resulting in delays, disruptions — and it’s preventing the orderly administration of justice. You’ve gotten the case again where it’s getting close to trial and again you fire your lawyers,” Brown said.

“Therefore, your right to counsel is forfeited. You no longer have a right to lawyers in this case. From this day on you’re representing yourself. You’re on your own, which is going to be pitiful from what I’ve seen here today,” he said.

“What a damned fool job he is (doing) of trying to represent himself,” Brown said.

Willis’ case was scheduled for a motions hearing in the Jonesborough courthouse for Brown to decide if Willis could fire his attorneys, Gene Scott and T. Wood Smith, if the attorneys could withdraw from representing Willis, and if Willis could be transferred to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution so he could have access to a law library.

In addition to the two murder charges, Willis also is charged with three counts of abuse of a corpse in the case.

He’s been jailed since shortly after a fisherman found Chrismer’s head near Winged Deer Park in 2002, and investigators located more of the teenager’s body parts in Boone Lake and a storage unit in Johnson City.

Thursday’s hearing started out with Willis taking the witness stand and questioning himself in an attempt to show the court that an affidavit used as the basis for a search warrant in 2002 at his mother’s Johnson City home was obtained through false statements.

As the painstaking proceeding progressed, Brown had to continually remind Willis of the proper laying of the foundation to introduce evidence because Willis attempted to put documents into the record through a witness who had no prior knowledge of them, or that were not admissible.

“Just because it’s a report doesn’t make it admissible. Just because it’s in the discovery doesn’t make it admissible,” Brown said.

After a recess in the case, Brown made his ruling without hearing further evidence from Willis or his attorneys.

“It appears he’s waived his right to counsel. He’s refused to talk to you all. He’s refused to communicate. He’s refused to talk to experts. This is quite serious.

“This should be done only when appointing new counsel would be futile,” Brown said of his decision to make Willis represent himself.

“The record should reflect this trial court has advised Mr. Willis his right to counsel would be lost if it continues. The court thoroughly advised him of the perils of self-representation a long time ago, and he still refuses to cooperate with counsel,” the judge said.

Brown praised Scott and Smith on their efforts to represent Willis.

They are the eighth and ninth attorneys in the case since Willis was arrested in 2002.

“If he gets another lawyer, put the case off another year or two and we’ll never get it tried because he knows how to put it off again. He knows to file a complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility on his lawyers,” Brown said.

Willis announced at the beginning of Thursday’s hearing that he mailed a lawsuit the previous day to U.S. District Court in Greeneville, suing Scott and Smith.

As for the law library issue, Brown ruled Willis does not have a right to a law library and he’ll stay right where he is in the Washington County Detention Center. Willis had asked Brown to transfer him to Riverbend, where he said he would have access to an adequate law library to conduct his own legal research.

Instead, the public defender’s office will provide law books and case law to Willis when he makes requests in writing, Brown said. He also said Willis will receive a Tennessee Rules of Evidence guide and a local rules of practice to guide him for his trial.

Brown said he intends to do everything he can to keep the case on track to go to trial in July.

“Jury selection will be July 10 and 11, and proof in the case will start July 12,” he said.

“It doesn’t get any more serious than this. The state is asking that you be executed,” Brown reminded Willis.

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