Jury issues split decision on trial

Published 12:01 am Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — With his lawyer Robert Whitacre, right, by his side, Joseph Ronald Hartfield, left, puffs out his cheeks after he was found not guilty in the Lamar County murder of Tabitha Hartfield Wednesday afternoon.


American Staff Writer

NATCHEZ — Toward the end of the murder trial of Joseph Ronald Hartfield, prosecution and defense attorneys asked the jurors to let their common sense guide them as they deliberated on his guilt or innocence.

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Shortly after 4 Wednesday afternoon, the Adams County jury matter-of-factly gave them both.

Hartfield, 35, of Purvis was found guilty on conspiracy to commit murder, but was found not guilty of murdering his 23-year-old wife, Tabitha Hartfield.

“Apparently, the jury felt that he was connected in some way, and we’re going to respect the decision of the jury,” said Stanley Rayborn, Tabitha Hartfield’s father, who for the second time in four months sat with about a dozen family members to listen to the events that ended with the strangling of his daughter sometime on May 24-25, 2008.

Fifteenth District Circuit Court Judge Anthony Mozingo scheduled sentencing for 9 a.m. July 6 at the Pearl River County Courthouse in Poplarville.

Pending a presentencing investigation by the Mississippi Department of Corrections, Hartfield faces the possibility of a maximum 20-year sentence.

The split decision left mixed feelings on both sides of the aisle.

“I did think it would be all or nothing,” said Robert Whitacre, one of Hartfield’s two defense lawyers. “I’m shocked that they split this. I don’t know. I don’t get it.”

Assistant District Attorney Douglas E. Miller, who tried the case with fellow assistant DA Lauren Harless, said he was disappointed but grateful.

“I would rather the murder (charge),” Miller said. “I still think he was one of the main culprits in that.

“But I’m glad that they at least convicted him of the conspiracy. That is something, and it’s some consolation to the family that he will be sentenced for his involvement, and serve time for her death.”

Hartfield was the second of three defendants to go to trial on murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the death of his wife in rural Lamar County.

Tabitha Hartfield’s body was found May 31, 2008, in a shallow grave deep in the woods of Lamar County, off B. Lowe Lane near the county line

The first of the accused to stand trial, Natasha Graham of Lumberton, was convicted in March on both charges by a Lamar County jury, and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.

Citing publicity from Graham’s trial, Ronald Hartfield’s lawyers — Whitacre and Lin Carter — asked for and received a change of venue from Mozingo, who moved the trial to Natchez.

Ronald Hartfield was the last of three to be arrested for the crime. Graham, Tabitha Hartfield’s distant cousin, and Ethan Dakota Dixon of Marion County, who was living with Graham at the time, were arrested on May 31, the same day that Graham led authorities to Tabitha Hartfield’s burial site.

Ronald Hartfield was not arrested until June 2011.

Wednesday’s verdict came on the trial’s third day, with 12 Adams County residents getting the case at 12:25 p.m. After twice asking for clarification on points of law, they announced at 3:55 p.m. that they had reached a verdict after 3 hours, 25 minutes of deliberation.