By Becky Campbell
Johnson City Press
A Tennessee Department of Correction prison guard still within her one-year employment probation period was fired last week after an investigation into her writing letters in support of a mother and daughter serving life sentences in the so-called Facebook murders.
The guard, Maria A. Jackson, wrote a letter dated Dec. 23, 2017, that was sent to Senior Judge Don Ash in Murfreesboro about Barbara Potter and her daughter, Jenelle Potter.
The women were charged, tried and convicted on two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree murder. They each received two life sentences that are being serviced concurrently in the Jan. 31, 2012, shooting deaths of Bill Payne, 36, and Billie Jean Hayworth, 23, inside that couple’s Johnson County home. Hayworth was holding the couple’s infant son when she was shot to death.
The dispute between the couple and the Potter family apparently stemmed from jealousy and ill feelings over Jenelle Potter’s affection for Payne. She was on the outskirts of the couple’s acquaintances and developed a hatred for Hayworth and her group of friends, according to trial testimony nearly three years ago.
After Ash received the ex-parte communication, he sent a copy to Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus as well as 1st Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark.
Staubus’ office handled the most recent court proceedings in the case — a motion asking a trial-level judge to consider what the defense believed was evidence not turned over to them that was revealed in a book written by the lead prosecutor in the trial, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks. Clark recused his office from that portion of the case.
Ash was appointed for the proceeding because the original trial judge, Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood is now retired from the bench.
Staubus wrote to TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker in a letter dated Jan. 16 stating he believed it was inappropriate for the guard to become involved in the case.
“It’s not a crime, but you’ve got a state employee whose a corrections officer trying to influence the judge,” Staubus said. “I characterized it as poor judgement. In my opinion it was an attempt to influence the judge. No matter what happened, it needs to be investigated.”
Tennessee Prison for Women Warden Gloria Gross fired Jackson Jan. 18. In the termination letter, Gross stated that Jackson admitted calling attorneys for Barbara and Jenelle Potter from her personal cell phone to tell the lawyers “that both inmates’ health issues were not being taken care of by prison staff, as well as passing on information regarding the delays in their appeals.”
The letter went on to say Jackson admitted knowing that she was putting her job on the line by writing the letters and making the phone calls.
“Additionally, you admitted to spending excessive amounts of time discussing both inmates’ criminal cases as well as pending appeals and writing at least three letters of personal referral to parole boards and judges to request four different inmates release from prison.”
The inmates’ names were redacted from the termination letter, but it was provided by Department of Correction Public Information Officer Robert Reburn after a direct request about the letter.
The termination letter cites two specific TDOC policies Jackson violated. One was a code of conduct to prevent fraternization with offenders, ex-offenders or offenders’ relatives or friends. The second violation was a requirement for employees to conduct themselves in professional matter when interacting with offenders.