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Ashworth guilty of second degree murder

SoVaNow.com / April 14, 2021


It took a six-man, six-women jury a little more than six hours Friday to find Damian Ashworth guilty of second degree murder and felony homicide in the July 2019 killing of Anthony Raekwon Roberts of Clarksville.

The verdict was handed down after three and a half days of trial presided over by Judge S. Anderson Nelson in Mecklenburg County Circuit Court.

Ashworth, who was 17 when Roberts was slain near his family’s home in Clarksville, had been charged with first and second degree murder, among other offenses. The jury found the defendant guilty of the latter charge but not the former, which contains the element of premeditation.

In addition to second degree murder, guilty verdicts were rendered on seven other counts: felony homicide, aggravated malicious wounding, shooting a gun from a vehicle, discharging a firearm in a public place, wounding during the commission of a felony, use of a firearm while committing murder and use of a firearm in an aggravated wounding.

Ashworth, 19, of Buffalo Junction, had been charged with those crimes along with a number of other counts, primarily involving the use of a firearm, in which the jury did not render guilty verdicts.

Ashworth’s girlfriend, Hayleigh Hylton of Brodnax, is charged with accessory after the fact to a homicide for having driven the getaway vehicle. She was 18 at the time. Her trial is currently set for May 17.

Roberts was shot to death in Clarksville near the corner of Market Street and Seventh Avenue during the afternoon of July 17, 2019.

Ashworth’s sentencing is set to take place on July 23. Because he was a juvenile at the time of the killing with no prior record, he will be sentenced by the judge under Virginia law.

The penalties for second degree murder, felony homicide and aggravated malicious wounding each carry a prison sentence of between five and 40 years. The charges related to use of a firearm while committing murder and use of a firearm in an aggravated wounding carry either a three- or five-year prison term, depending on whether it is a first or second offense. The prison term for each of these offenses runs consecutively, not concurrently with any other prison sentence.

The penalties for shooting from a vehicle and wounding during the commission of a felony both carry prison terms of one to five years. The penalty for shooting from a vehicle is one to ten years.

It is possible that Ashworth could spend up to 150 years in prison.

Neither Mecklenburg County Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Nash, nor Ashworth’s defense counsel, W. Barry Montgomery, asked to poll the jurors — a practice in which each juror is asked individually if he or she agreed to the verdict. The only comment made came from jury foreperson Margarite Smith, who assured Nelson that the verdicts were unanimous.

Jury verdicts in all criminal prosecutions in Virginia must be unanimous.

Testifying in his defense, Ashworth claimed that he shot Roberts while Roberts was attempting to wrestle Ashworth’s gun away from him. According to Ashworth, the 5-4”, 158-lb. Roberts punched through a tempered glass window on the passenger side of the vehicle that Ashworth was riding in and pummeled Ashworth about the face and head 10 to 15 times before grabbing for the 9mm pistol Ashworth was holding in his lap.

Ashworth testified that he kept the gun with him for protection after being threatened by Roberts and a friend of Roberts’, Tasheade Degree.

According to Ashworth, he and girlfriend and co-defendant Hayleigh Hylton were picking up a pizza at the local Papa John’s restaurant when he received a text message from Degree accusing him of “hiding.” To prove he was not afraid, Ashworth said he had Hylton drive him through Roberts’ and Degree’s neighborhood near Seventh Street in Clarksville before heading back to Ashworth’s mother’s house in Buffalo Junction.

While the pair was heading down Market Street toward Seventh Street, Ashworth said they encountered Roberts. “I went there to talk s*** so maybe they would back off,” Ashworth said on the stand.

Instead of talking, Ashworth testified that Roberts approached him and Hylton “in an aggressive manner.” Because of Roberts’ demeanor, Ashworth said he removed his pistol from the glove compartment of Hylton’s car and placed it in his lap.

Ashworth said he was unable to fight back against Roberts because of the way he was seated in the car. When Roberts grabbed the barrel of the 9mm, Ashworth said he feared for his and Hylton’s life. It was for that reason alone, he said, that he pulled the trigger.

When asked on the stand, Ashworth said he could not recall how many times he fired the gun, but he remembers seeing Roberts looking down at his chest, which had been pierced by a bullet before running off.

After brushing the remnants of the broken window glass onto the street, Ashworth said he told Hylton to drive off. He could not say where Roberts had gone because he — Ashworth — said he was scared and bleeding.

He told the jury that he did not think he’d killed Roberts, although he admitted throwing the murder weapon into the woods by his mother’s house and trying to clean blood from the side of Hylton’s car.

When asked about the teardrop he had tattooed near his eye after Robert’s death — a key point raised by the prosecution to show the vengeful nature of the killing — Ashworth said it was inked on his face because “he was sad.” While in prison, he subsequently had it redrawn in the shape of a broken heart, which he said was done once he learned the meaning of a teardrop tattoo.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Investigator and gang expert Jamie King testified that a teardrop is the sign that the wearer has taken a life.

Nash, through the testimony of prosecution witnesses, painted a very different picture of the events that led up to Roberts’ death. The witnesses explained that there was no sign of trauma to either of Roberts’ hands aside from a gunshot wound received from a 9mm pistol. Had Roberts punched through a car window, there would have been evidence of what medical examiner Dr. Jennifer Bowers called “stippling.” There was also no sign of trauma to Ashworth’s face at the time of his arrest, according to officers who interviewed him.

Montgomery, Ashworth’s defense counsel, introduced two photos that Ashworth’s mother, Jessica Sousa, claimed she took of her son’s face on the evening of his arrest. Nash raised doubts about the photos by showing that Sousa could not have taken them on the date and at the time she testified since she and Ashworth were in two different locations.

Sousa claimed the photos — showing a bloody mouth — were taken of Ashworth between 5 and 5:30 p.m. on July 17 while Ashworth was in custody at the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in Boydton. Nash, however, produced a signed document showing that at 5:38 p.m. Sousa was being questioned by Clarksville Police Officer Cameron Waters at the police station in Clarksville, a distance of 15 miles away.

Ashworth’s claim that he fired his gun while seated in Hylton’s car was refuted by Investigator Mark Claiborne. A video of Claiborne and Investigator Andy Mosely performing a test firing of Ashworth’s gun showed that with each discharge, the spent shells from the gun were ejected behind the shooter. Nash explained that had Ashworth fired the gun from inside Hylton’s car as he stated, the spent shells would have landed inside the car. However, only one of three shells were retrieved from inside the car. Two others were collected outside next to the body of Roberts.

Nash’s summation for the jury laid out the events of July 17, which Nash said was supported by the evidence. Nash did not dispute that Ashworth and Hylton had driven to the neighborhood where Roberts lived or that he had received an earlier text from Degree. He did, however, contest the version of events that Ashworth offered leading up to Robert’s death.

Nash said the evidence showed that as Hylton and Ashworth were driving down Market Street toward Seventh Street, they spied Roberts walking up the road from his home. As he pulled up alongside Roberts, Ashworth fired his pistol through the passenger window striking Roberts in the chest. Stippling around that wound suggested that in addition to the bullet blast, Roberts was struck by sharp objects such as glass, according to the medical examiner’s testimony.

Nash said the evidence shown by a trail of broken glass indicates that Hylton backed the car up and stopped, at which time Ashworth exited the vehicle. A second pile of glass from the window accumulated at the spot where Ashworth opened the door — as shown to the jury with photos of the scene taken by Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Lt. Marlon Alexander. The first pile of glass was found near where Roberts was initially shot.

As Roberts lay dying, Nash said the evidence indicates that Ashworth walked up to Roberts and shot him two more times, again in the chest and once in the face near his jaw. Ashworth then returned to the vehicle and he and Hylton drove away.

In addition to Ashworth and Sousa, the defense called two other witnesses, Hylton and Juan Rico Tucker Jr. Hylton, who is incarcerated awaiting trial on the accessory charge against her, took the Fifth and refused to answer questions on advice of her attorney, Clint Clary.

Tucker, an acquaintance of Ashworth’s who received text messages from him after the killing, offered little help to the defense. When asked repeatedly if he was told by Ashworth about being “punched in the face” by Roberts, Tucker replied, “Everything is in the statement I wrote.”

Tucker provided law enforcement with a written statement at the time of their investigation of the shooting. On cross examination, Nash was able to confirm that Ashworth told Tucker that he “shot Crack” — a nickname given to Roberts — and that he shot him in the chest and threw the murder weapon in the woods.

The courtroom was quiet as Clerk Michelle Gordon read the verdicts. Ahead of the pronouncement, Nelson had asked those present to refrain from any emotional outbursts.

With the case over for now, Roberts’ and Ashworth’s family members who had been in the courtroom every day of the trial quietly filed out of the room, choosing not to speak to the media.

Ashworth was taken back into custody and returned to Meherrin River Regional Jail where he has been held since being charged. He registered no emotion as the verdict was read.

Montgomery was granted permission by the court to file written motions to set aside part of the verdict. He did not share which parts he hopes to have relieved. His post trial motions are due on or before April 30. Prosecutors have 10 days to respond.

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