Petersburg quadruple murder case goes to jury
Closing arguments held in trial of man accused of killing 4
Defense attorney asserts that police detective planted key piece of evidence.
PETERSBURG— The prosecution and defense on Thursday battled for the hearts and minds of jurors in the capital murder trial of Alexander R. Hill Jr. when Hill’s lead attorney asserted in closing arguments that a key Petersburg police detective planted a crucial piece of evidence — the defendant’s cellphone — and had tainted the entire case.
On the seventh day of Hill’s trial in Petersburg Circuit Court, a jury of 10 women and two men began deliberating at 1:35 p.m. after nearly 2½ hours of closing arguments by the prosecution and defense. After failing to reach a verdict by 5 p.m., Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. sent the panel home for the evening and instructed them to return at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Jurors are considering an assortment of charges against Hill, including multiple counts of capital murder and first-degree murder in the April 19, 2014, slayings of Pauline Wilkins, 67; Vicki Cha- vis-Ansar, 46; Tanique Chavis, 22; and her son, Delvari Chavis, 2. Wilkins and Chavis-Ansar were stabbed to death. Prosecutors say Tanique and Delvari Chavis died of fire-related injuries after Hill broke in and set their home ablaze.
Jurors also will decide whether to convict Hill of arson in connection with the fire, as well as making threatening phone calls to Vivian Chavis and violating a protective order she obtained against Hill. Vivian Chavis is Hill’s former girlfriend whose ruinous relationship with the defendant was the catalyst for the violence that resulted in one of Petersburg’s worst mass killings, prosecutors say.
In explosive remarks before the jury, capital defender Doug Ramseur charged that Petersburg police almost immediately declared Hill their chief and only suspect in the 2014 Easter weekend killings, and acted to “find evidence that matched” and “ignore all evidence to the contrary.”
Ramseur focused his attention on Petersburg Detective Roosevelt Harris, who was the “primary crime-scene evidence collector” at the victims’ home. The attorney suggested that Harris planted Hill’s cellphone — which Ramseur described as the “single most incriminating piece of evidence” against his client — in the backyard.
Harris testified earlier that he found a gray Samsung cellphone laying in the grass and that when he activated it later, the words “Real Deal” — Hill’s street name— popped up on the screen. Authorities later recovered an incriminating text message that Hill sent via his phone to a friend just before the killings — at 3:28 a.m. on April 19, 2014— that prosecutors say places Hill at the murder scene.
Ramseur told jurors that Harris could not provide a photograph of the cellphone with an evidence marker after it was found in the yard— which is standard police practice when discovering potential evidence— because “that phone was never there.”
Harris had testified that he picked up the phone because it began to rain, and then immediately placed it in an evidence bag and into his car for safekeeping.
But Ramseur even challenged Harris’ claim that it was raining at the time, showing jurors a blownup photo of a weather report that noted there was no rainfall in Petersburg that day until 8 a.m. — about four hours after Harris arrived and said he found the phone. Ramseur also displayed for jurors blown-up photos of other items marked as evidence that were found in the yard, and none appeared to be wet from rain.
“If you can’t trust Roosevelt about the weather,” Ramseur told jurors, you can’t trust anything he says or does regarding the murder case.
“This case rises and falls on Roosevelt Harris,” the attorney declared.
Earlier in the trial, Ramseur sought to impeach Harris as a witness by disclosing that the detective had been reprimanded or suspended three times between 2004 and 2017 for improperly handling or losing evidence, and was removed as supervisor of the department’s property room after an internal audit in 2015 revealed that more than $10,000 in cash from three criminal cases had gone missing.
But the judge disallowed the disclosure to jurors, saying there was no connection between Harris’ earlier mistakes and his handling of evidence in the 2014 killings.
In a rebuttal of Ramseur’s narrative, Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cheryl Wilson told jurors that Ramseur was engaging in speculation and “there has been no evidence” that Harris planted the phone or that Petersburg police had corrupted or mishandled the investigation.
“It’s easy enough to place blame everywhere when there is nothing to support it,” Wilson told jurors. “They are throwing out all these other (allegations) to confuse the issue.”
“The only evidence you have is that the defendant’s phone was at the (victim’s) house,” Wilson added. “Anything they can potentially point to they put on Detective Harris — even though he didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Wilson said Petersburg police had “every reason” to look closely at Hill because they learned in the earliest stages of the investigation that Hill had been relentlessly calling his former girlfriend — Vivian Chavis — and threatening to kill her and her family. She noted that Hill called Chavis 99 times between April 4 and April 8, 2014.
“All of (the evidence) points to one person,” Wilson told the jury, “and that’s why police were looking at him.”
In her closing argument, Wilson also emphasized the importance of Hill’s cellphone to the case.
“We know where the cellphone was, and we know who sent the text, and we know where he was when he sent it,” the prosecutor said.
Wilson was referring to a bizarre text message, that authorities were able to recover, that Hill sent to his friend, Justin Keppler, at 3:28 a.m. on April 19, 2014— just three minutes before Tanique Chavis called 911 to report that a man had broken into her family’s home in the 700 block of Harding Street.
The text, which Wilson referred to as Hill’s last will and testament, read: “Hey brother. I amhere! My destination. Should things go as I have planned I no longer exist. That’s right claim my remains and ensure they are cremated.”
But Hill didn’t die that night, Wilson noted, and instead fled to North Carolina just after midnight on Easter Sunday, April 20.
“He had a plan in place,” the prosecutor said. “He knew (the killings) would come back to him. That’s why he left.”