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The inmates were heading out to play baseball. Although the May day was warm, Brett “Bud” Hawkins wore a sweatshirt under his standard issue Lorton Correctional Complex blue shirt. With a homemade knife in his right hand, he walked into Dorm 23 just after noon. Exactly what happened next and why is unclear, even after a two-day trial. Yet this much is known: Hawkins fought with two other men, and one of them stabbed him to death with his own knife. That was in 1999. Last week, Christopher Thomas and Julius Newton Jr. were tried together for murdering Hawkins in Chief Judge Claude Hilton’s Alexandria courtroom in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Thomas, who had been convicted twice before of murder, faced the death penalty. Not many death penalty cases are tried in the Alexandria federal courthouse. But this case was unusual for another reason. Thomas and Newton were tried in the same courtroom, at the same time, and in the presence of the same jury. But the jury would only pass judgment on Thomas. Newton had opted for a bench trial. “I’ve never seen it before,” says Helen Fahey, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District who has been supervising prosecutions in the district for more than seven years. In court, Thomas, 27, wore a Lorton jumpsuit and on his right hand, a gold wedding band. His hair was tucked under a black knitted cap, one that his attorney had asked him not to wear. It accentuated his high cheekbones, square jaw, and Roman nose. Outfitted in a dark pinstriped suit, his co-defendant Newton appeared too slight to have participated in the kind of hand-to-hand combat that led to Hawkins’ death. But one of his Lorton nicknames is “The Boxer.” As is always the case in prison murder trials, the 12-member jury, which was all white and mostly middle-aged, heard about a world alien to their own. Newton and the victim had been friends growing up in Washington, and they ended up bunking in the same dorm at Lorton, a suburban Virginia prison infamous for its crumbling physical plant and inadequate inmate supervision. That May afternoon, Hawkins was ready for a fight. In the shower that morning, Newton had put a chokehold on Hawkins’ lover, a man named Michael Clark. Hawkins was “armored” up — Lorton parlance for donning multiple layers of clothing and gloves. He got a homemade knife and headed for Dorm 23 after lunch, just as everyone else was going outside to play ball. According to testimony given at trial, this is how the events unfolded: Hawkins came up the aisle, the knife in his hand by his side, as Newton was at his bunk getting ready for the game. Quickly, a fight was on. Thomas, who had been speaking with Newton moments before, returned to Newton’s bunk and grabbed Hawkins’ hand as Newton pulled Hawkins down onto the bed. Thomas wrested the knife away and shouted to Newton to let Hawkins go. When Hawkins jerked away, Thomas stabbed him three times. Hawkins fell to his knees. He got up and started to walk away, but Newton knocked him down, and left. Thomas then stabbed Hawkins again, repeatedly. Leaving Hawkins on the floor, Thomas walked to a neighboring dorm, throwing the knife to the roof on his way. He stripped down and said to an inmate there, “I think we just killed Bud,” according to the testimony of one prisoner. He took a shower. Within 20 minutes, Lorton was in full lockdown with inmates on their bunks and ready for body checks. SPLIT DEFENSE At trial, Thomas’ attorneys were working toward a finding of justifiable homicide. During opening statements, Greg English of Alexandria, Va.’s English & Smith pointed out to the jury that it was Hawkins who came with the knife. “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” English said. His co-counsel was Joseph Bowman, an Alexandria solo who, like English, has handled a number of capital cases. Newton’s two court-appointed attorneys were Alexandria sole practitioners Alan Yamamoto and Michael Lieberman, who also is supervising attorney at American University’s Washington College of Law Criminal Justice Clinic. Trying the case against both men were Assistant U.S. Attorneys William Fitzpatrick and David Hackney. Four days before the Dec. 4 trial began, Yamamoto and Lieberman decided that Newton’s best bet was a bench trial. Because Thomas was facing the death penalty, the jury hearing the case would be death-qualified, meaning that they would undergo a rigorous voir dire to make sure they would be willing to impose the death penalty. One concern was that death-qualified juries are generally “more apt to convict,” Lieberman says. He adds that he was also concerned that the jury might transfer some of the blame for Thomas’ actions to Newton. In fact, the idea of waiving the jury for both defendants was discussed before trial. But just as Newton’s lawyers thought going before a jury was dangerous, Thomas’ attorneys feared putting their case directly in Judge Hilton’s hands. “Finally, we decided that in a capital case, it was just too risky,” says Bowman. “We’d rather have the government try to convince 12 people than convince one” judge that the murder was premeditated. “I wanted a common-sense analysis of the whole situation,” he says. “If you analyzed that case the way a lawyer would analyze it, you might get first degree.” At times during the trial, it was clear that the two defendants had divergent interests. For example, Newton’s attorneys successfully kept out some grand jury testimony that would have been helpful to Thomas. And Thomas’ lawyers weren’t keen on Newton’s decision to testify on his own behalf in the presence of the jury. “We didn’t know what he would say,” English explains. Hilton denied a request by Thomas’ attorneys to excuse the jury during Newton’s turn on the stand. And, indeed, while Yamamoto was examining Newton, Thomas’ lawyer vigorously objected to one line of questioning. Yamamoto clearly was trying to undermine the reputation of the victim by asking Newton questions suggesting that Hawkins had a penchant for knives and violence, and that perhaps Hawkins had been going for a new weapon when Newton tackled him. But English jumped out of his chair to object because such questions might open the door to evidence about both of the defendants’ characters. As a result, jurors might find out that Thomas had twice been convicted of murder, once for killing a Washington, D.C. cab driver in 1992 and later for slaying a fellow inmate in 1994. Hilton sustained the objection. Two weeks ago, Yamamoto’s questions wouldn’t have been a problem. He could have dragged out every dark secret he knew about Hawkins to paint a picture of an aggressive man who would attack a childhood friend, and prosecutors would have had to remain mum on the backgrounds of Newton or Thomas. But on Dec. 1, an addition to the Federal Rules of Evidence, Section 404(a), went into effect. Prosecutors are still barred from initiating character attacks, but if a defendant brings up the victim’s character, he is fair game. The rule allows prosecutors to undermine the character of a witness “to rebut evidence that the alleged victim was the first aggressor.” “For Mr. Thomas, it was a significant problem,” Lieberman says. For his own client, though, character may not have been as big a deal, he says. Newton was serving time for violating parole after being convicted of drug dealing. In all cases where defendants choose to testify, “it’s a problem,” Bowman predicted. “It’s going to take some time to work it out, to see how to apply it.” Because this is the first case in the Eastern District where the rule has been applied, “We may get a published opinion out of this case,” Bowman says. JUDGMENT After fewer than two days of testimony by eight inmates, a forensic scientist, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and an officer of the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections, closing arguments in both cases came on Tuesday afternoon. After Fitzpatrick and Bowman exchanged heated closing arguments to the jury in Thomas’ case, Hackney stood before Hilton and argued that Newton should be found guilty of murder. When Newton knocked Hawkins down, said Hackney, “He knew Christopher Thomas had the knife and he knew what Christopher Thomas was going to do.” Yamamoto rebutted: If Newton had been trying to help Thomas kill Hawkins, he wouldn’t have walked away after knocking him down in the aisle. “He would have held Hawkins so that Thomas could stab Mr. Hawkins.” The most anyone could ever find in this case against Newton, he said, was voluntary manslaughter. Hilton ruled with barely a pause: “It is clear that Hawkins was the instigator,” he said. “There is no evidence that these two defendants together went into the dorm to do something to Mr. Hawkins.” He found Newton guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Before the marshals escorted Newton out of the courtroom, he faced his family members sitting behind him and gave a small smile. Hilton then turned to scheduling problems should the jury need to continue their deliberations the next day. But only 45 minutes after they began deliberations, the jury was back. They found Thomas guilty of second-degree murder. In practical terms, that means that Thomas, who was already facing a minimum of 22-1/2 years in prison for his previous convictions, will remain incarcerated for much longer. He will not be sentenced to die. U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey expresses satisfaction with the verdicts, noting that “Lorton murder cases are always difficult for juries.” And although defense attorneys for both men plan to appeal, they also seem relieved with the verdicts. Reflecting on the jury verdict, Bowman says, “As long as they don’t kill my client, I’m OK with it.”

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