By Becky Campbell
Press Senior Reporter
Barbara Potter entered a Washington County courtroom Wednesday to “accept her fault,” her attorney said, by admitting she facilitated the murders of a Johnson County couple that had a conflict with her daughter.
Potter’s double-murder conviction was overturned in August, and she was awarded a new trial due to a conflict of interest on her trial attorney’s part. Her lawyer at that time, attorney Randy Fallin, had also represented her husband, Marvin “Buddy” Potter, in the murder case.
Marvin, Barbara and their daughter, Jenelle Potter, were all convicted in the murders, and conspiracy to commit the murders, of Billy Payne and Billie Jean Hayworth.
Payne and Hayworth were shot to death inside their Mountain City home on Jan. 31, 2012, as Payne was getting ready for work.
Deputy District Attorney Dennis Brooks read a lengthy narrative of the slayings for the judge during Potter’s plea. When he had finished, Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice asked Potter if she agreed that would be the evidence presented at a trial. Potter said she did, then Rice asked her how she pleaded.
“I plead guilty, your honor,” Potter said.
“Because you are guilty?” Rice asked. “Yes,” Potter replied.
Potter, 69, of Mountain City, has been serving two life sentences alongside her daughter, Jenelle, 38. Her husband and Jenelle’s father, Marvin Potter, is also serving life in prison. Both of their convictions have been upheld on appeal.
Potter confirmed for Rice that she felt her current attorney, Scott Shults, had done all he could to help in her case, with the judge adding Shults had done an “exemplary” job in his work.
A fourth person charged, Jamie Curd, received a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against the Potter women. He also pleaded guilty to facilitation to first-degree murder and received a 25-year sentence. He has been denied parole several times, Brooks said.
The long and winding story leading up to the slayings involved threats, Facebook unfriending, allegations of vandalism and a CIA operative named Chris.
There was a web of jealousy, allegations of threats from Hayworth and Payne toward Jenelle Potter, emails between them all and even an alleged bounty for Jenelle’s murder. Jenelle Potter had a love interest in Payne and apparently wasn’t happy when he began dating Hayworth.
That led to discord between the one-time friends that prosecutors said ultimately ended in Payne and Hayworth’s deaths and the Potters being convicted of murder.
The case was dubbed “the Facebook murders” because authorities claimed the unfriending of Jenelle Potter on the social media site by Payne and Hayworth precipitated the animosity between them and helped lead to the
Hundreds of emails discovered by investigators revealed what Brooks called a “catfishing” carried out by Jenelle Potter on her mother. He said Jenelle Potter wrote emails from “Chris” to her mother about Jenelle’s safety. He was supposedly sent to Mountain City to protect Jenelle.
Ultimately, investigators determined there was no CIA agent in Mountain City and said Jenelle made the whole thing up.
“This all started from her post-conviction proceeding,” Shults said. “Judge Bill Acree found that she was denied assistance of counsel based on a conflict of interest from her trial counsel.
“The basic result of that is she’s no longer guilty. She gets a new trial, it starts back from square one,” he said. “But rather than go through all of that, she had requested to enter into a plea agreement and that’s what we negotiated on her behalf.”
During the hearing, Shults specifically noted that he advised his client to not accept a plea, but she asked him to pursue one, so he did.
Brooks said it was “judicial economy” and the emotional toll a new trial would have on the victim’s family that led to his decision to negotiate the plea. He had previously rejected any form of plea before Potter’s trial.
Potter has already served the required 30% eligibility to go before the parole board, but there’s no guarantee she would be approved.
“She will eventually be coming up for parole,” Shults said. “To have that opportunity was important to
her. Then, too, she wanted
to make amends with what had happened. She did
want to go in there and plead guilty.
“It was not my advice to do that. It was my advice she proceed with a trial in
this matter. But she wanted
to conclude it and plead
guilty to her part in what occurred.
“She didn’t hesitate, not at all,” when answering the judge’s question about how she pleaded, Shults said.
“It took a lot of work to get here and I truly believe that she could have had a better outcome at trial. She certainly could have. But from Barbara’s perspective, she’d already had that trial one time. She was thinking of that and of wanting to accept her fault in what actually occurred.
“She didn’t have any hesitation. She truly wanted to accept her fault in what occurred,” he said.