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Facebook Murders revisited: “I did that on purpose”

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

On July 13 and July 14, the Washington County Criminal Court revisited a crime that put a national focus on the small town of Mountain City. Now, two of the three parties serving two consecutive life sentences for the 2012 murders of Bill Payne and Billie Jean Hayworth are asking for a new ruling.

Like the request in 2016, this attempt revolves around new evidence. That case focused on information revealed from Deputy District Attorney Dennis Brooks’ book on the case, “Too Pretty to Live, the Catfishing Murders of East Tennessee.” Barbara and Jenelle Potter’s attorneys are focusing this new request around Marvin Potter’s never-before-heard testimony on the chain of events.

“I did that on purpose,” Marvin testified about slitting Payne’s throat in his confession at the post-conviction hearing. “Because of what they were saying about my daughter.”

For those that are fuzzy on the nearly decade-old crime, this case, known as the Facebook Murders, revolves around a social media feud that made its way to the real world. Allegedly, threats and bullying on Facebook and the Mountain City, TN Topix forum added fuel to the fire, which eventually led to an early morning visit to the house on James Davis Lane by Marvin Potter and Jenelle’s boyfriend, Jamie Curd. That visit left the victims with execution-style shots to the head, Payne’s throat cut, and the couple’s eight-month-old son asleep in Hayworth’s lifeless arms.

There was controversy around how the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office handled the murder case during the original investigation. Payne’s stepfather, David Garland, sent copies of a letter addressed to the acting sheriff, Mike Reece, to The Tomahawk in July 2012. His letter accused Reece of damaging the prosecution’s case with his public comments. The letter also included records of others seeking court-ordered protection from Jenelle because of the “alleged harassment” stretching back four years, claiming the victims should have been protected better. At that time, Reece’s only statement was that he would not respond to the letter in question.

Now six years after the Potter women were convicted and five years after their original petition for a new trial, Marvin is speaking out. He now says what triggered his actions was evidence presented by Curd that his daughter was being bullied. Both parties’ lawyers claimed the information was paramount, considering the Potter women’s charges are under Tennessee Code Annotated 39-11-402, criminal responsibility for the conduct of another.

Brooks claims Marvin’s testimony is “full of red flags” that contradict the evidence. In previous trials, the prosecutor presented several signs of possible knowledge of the plan, such as an article Barbara reportedly emailed to herself entitled “Can God Forgive a Murder?” 15 days before the murders took place.

“His testimony has to be taken in light of the massive bias he’d have to help his family, and it would have to be evaluated in light of the other evidence in the case,” Brooks explained. “Maybe somewhere along the way, he’s had a change of heart, but, in my mind, if he wanted to help those women at their trial, he’d have done it. He’d have given the testimony he gave yesterday.”

In the upcoming months, officials will decide whether the Potter women will receive a new trial, get a chance at an appeal, or be left to serve their sentences as planned. Keep an eye out for more updates on the Facebook Murders.