UPDATE: Jury finds pair guilty of murder, armed robbery in 2011 Plaza Motel homicide

Friend says she could 'see the life go out' of Julian Hernandez' face

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 23, 2013 

UPDATE: Anguished relatives rushed wailing from the courtroom this afternoon as a jury announced it had found Dominique Lowe and Calvin Denson guilty of murder and armed robbery in the fatal shooting of Julian Hernandez on Sept. 9, 2011, at the Plaza Motel on Victory Drive.

Superior Court Judge Tracy Moulton Jr. set a pre-sentencing hearing for 1:15 p.m. Monday. Each faces a maximum of life in prison.

Each was charged with malice murder, felony murder and armed robbery. Denson was found guilty on all counts. Lowe was found guilty of felony murder and armed robbery, but not malice murder.

Felony murder means killing someone while committing a felony, in this case armed robbery, even if the homicide was unintentional. Malice murder means killing someone with the intent to do so.

The jury deliberated for two hours today before rendering its verdict.

Here's the story from Thursday's court session:

The third day of the murder trial of Dominique Lowe and Calvin Denson was marked this morning by the tearful testimony of Stella Lindsey, who recounted seeing coworker Julian Hernandez gunned down right in front of her Sept. 9, 2011, at the Plaza Motel on Victory Drive.

She was at a bed near the door of Room 223 when the gunman she identified as Denson came in with a cloth over his face and ordered everyone inside to get down on the floor. Before she could get down, Hernandez advanced on Denson and started struggling with him, she said, and then the gun went off and Hernandez' body appeared to grow tense.

But his grip on Denson persisted, and Denson pulled the gun back and tucked it under Hernandez' torso and fired repeatedly, she said. With Hernandez still in his arms, Denson slowly let the wounded man slide to the floor.

As Denson left, she ran to Hernandez, who looked up at her, she said. She began to weep on the witness stand. "I could just see the life go out of Julian's face," she said. As he died, he rolled over onto his stomach, she said.

It was a moment burned into her memory, she said: "I will never forget that, ever. That will always be in my mind."

She said Denson came into the room less than 30 seconds after Dominique Lowe left, having delivered a bag of cocaine. She identified both of the men in court, pointing out Lowe as the drug dealer and Denson as the gunman.

Here is Wednesday report on the murder trial's second day:

Jurors on the second day of the murder trial of Dominique Lowe and Calvin Denson heard a recording of a phone call in which a prostitute talking to a Muscogee jail inmate describes the fatal shooting of Julian Hernandez as it happens.

“Oh my God! They’re robbing us!” Christina Clark exclaims on her call with inmate Marcus Price, for whom she was arranging three-way calls to put Price in touch with friends and relatives.

Much of the recording is difficult to discern. Clark is frantic, and Price, who calls her “Mandy,” keeps asking what’s happening.

“He’s shot! He’s down!” she shouts, before she’s overheard telling others in Room 223 of the Plaza Motel that the police can’t catch her there because she’s on probation.

“Oh my God! You’ve got to call the police!” she says. “I’ve got to go! I can’t be here!”

It was the violent end of a motel room party Hernandez and friend Luis Hernandez-Aguires had arranged with Clark and Stella Lindsey the night of Sept. 9, 2011, at the 3540 Victory Drive motel, where gunfire erupted as a robber came to take Hernandez’ $1,619 in cash.

In court Wednesday, Clark pointed to Denson as the intruder who fired five shots, four of which hit Hernandez and left him dying on the floor.

Clark said the shooting occurred right after Lowe left the motel room, having delivered powdered cocaine. Clark arranged the drug deal with Lowe, who regularly supplied her with crack. Lowe initially brought crack to the room, but Hernandez wanted powdered cocaine, and pulled out a thick wad of cash when Lowe asked him for $60.

Prosecutor George Lipscomb contends the sight of so much cash enticed Lowe to recruit Denson to commit the robbery.

In her testimony Wednesday, Clark said Denson, whom she knew to be one of Lowe’s friends, walked into the room and said, “Everyone get down on the ground.” But Hernandez refused and advanced on Denson, trying to get the gun, she said. When the shooting started, she and Hernandez-Aguires ran to the motel room’s bathroom and futilely tried to break a window to escape, then huddled in a tiny shower. When she came out, Hernandez lay dead on the floor, and she stepped over him on her way out, she said.

She said she left and went to another motel where Marcus Price’s father, Albert “Sonny” Price, picked her up and took her to his house. Later Marcus Price called her again from the jail, and that call also was recorded.

The inmate asked her what happened. “They robbed him,” she told him. “They shot him five times.”

When Marcus Price asked who did the shooting, Clark, referring to Lowe as “D-Low,” said, “D-Low’s friend.”

That was the third telephone recording the jury heard Wednesday. Lipscomb also played a 911 recording of Hernandez-Aguires trying to report the shooting: It did not go well.

In the 10:27 p.m. call, Hernandez-Aguires, who is Mexican, tried to communicate with a distinctly Southern-sounding 911 operator. They could not understand each other, so he put the motel manager on the phone.

The motel manager was from India, and he and the dispatcher could not understand each other, either. When he told her he was at the Plaza Motel, she thought he said “Plaza Market.” When she asked him what had happened, he gave her the motel’s phone number.

Finally Lindsey came to the phone to explain. She described the robber as black, 19 to 25 years old, 5 foot 6 to 5 foot 9 inches tall, and wearing a camouflage jacket with a hood and oversized blue jeans. “He’s not breathing,” she said of Hernandez.

Lipscomb also had a cell phone company representative authenticate phone records the prosecutor said showed repeated communications between Clark and Lowe and between Lowe and Denson on the day of the homicide and the day after.

Defense attorneys objected that a record of calls between specific phone numbers does not reveal who was using the phones at the time, and that the phone Lowe is alleged to have used was registered under the name “Tori Cutts.”

The phone company’s witness was Michael Allison, who brought subpoenaed records showing that on the night Hernandez died, the telephone Lowe’s accused of using called Clark’s phone at 8:57 p.m. and again at 9:09 p.m. Clark’s phone called back at 9:39 p.m. for just 15 seconds, and then a minute later Lowe’s phone returned the call, and called back again at 9:49 p.m. The next call between the two was at 10:48 a.m. the following day, Allison testified.

Next he was asked about phone calls between Lowe and Denson. He said Denson’s phone called Lowe’s at 10:02 p.m. that night, and the next day calls were exchanged at 11:16 a.m., 6:31 p.m., 6:44 p.m., and 6:49 p.m. All the calls went through local cell towers, Allison said.

On cross examination from defense attorneys Ray Lakes and Tim Flournoy, Allison testified that on Sept. 3, 2011, 15 calls were exchanged between those two numbers, so the attorneys argued such calls were not uncommon and thus not by themselves incriminating.

Flournoy, who represents Denson, attacked Clark’s credibility by reciting her criminal record of multiple convictions for prostitution and cocaine possession, at one point asking her whether she knew exactly how many felony convictions she had.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Quite a few.” She admitted she had been smoking crack since age 13, and working as a prostitute to support her habit.

Flournoy then pressed her about having fled the motel room without trying to help Hernandez or waiting to talk to police. He asked whether she was worried only about her probation status at the time.

“With a dead body beside me, yes, I was,” she said.

Also Wednesday, police Detective Patrick Knight described the crime scene while Lipscomb played a video of the motel room. Among the images was a picture of what police found in the dead man’s pockets.

They found Marlboro cigarettes, a lighter, and $1,619.

The robber left the room only with Hernandez’ wallet, Lipscomb said: The money Hernandez died defending was in another pocket.

Here is Monday's report on the trial's first day:

Four bullets took Julian Hernandez’ life the night of Sept. 9, 2011, at the Plaza Motel on Columbus’ Victory Drive, a medical examiner testified Tuesday in the first day of his alleged killers’ murder trial.

Three of the four bullets were recovered the next day during an autopsy in Decatur, Ga., said Dr. Jacqueline Martin, chief deputy medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

She was the first witness called in the trial of Dominique Lowe and Calvin Denson, each facing charges of murder and armed robbery in the death of Hernandez, 38, a Fort Benning contract worker who, having just been paid that Friday, had about $1,600 on him.

It was that wad of cash that caught Lowe’s attention when he offered to get Hernandez $60 worth of powdered cocaine to share with two women in his motel room, Assistant District Attorney George Lipscomb told the jury in his opening argument. Hernandez pulled out the money and peeled off $60 to give Lowe, who then recruited Denson to commit the armed robbery, Lipscomb said.

What ensued was a series of mistakes that left the robbers with an empty wallet, an incriminating telephone recording and a homicide, Lipscomb said.

First of all, an admitted prostitute in the motel room happened to be on the telephone with a jail inmate when the shooting happened. The jail records inmate calls, and prosecutors now have an audio tape of the robbery and shooting, Lipscomb said.

Denson was not supposed to commit the robbery until Lowe delivered the cocaine and left, the prosecutor said. Instead Denson, armed with a handgun and holding a handkerchief over his face, burst in while Lowe was still there, Lipscomb said.

Denson ordered everyone to lie on the floor, but Hernandez, defiant, stood up and confronted the gunman, the prosecutor said. The phone recording then caught the popping of small-caliber pistol shots.

The most lethal hit Hernandez in the right side of the chest, punctured both of his lungs and his heart and lodged in the left side of his back, the medical examiner testified. Another traveled up his left arm and stopped in his left shoulder; a third ripped through his right thigh; and a fourth entered his left thigh and stuck at the tip of his left femur near his pelvis, she said.

After the shooting, Lowe and Denson grabbed Hernandez’ wallet and ran, leaving behind all the cash the dying man kept in another pocket, Lipscomb said.

Soon Denson returned, not to get the cash but to wipe off surfaces where he might have left fingerprints, the prosecutor said.

Among those who had been celebrating payday with Hernandez was a coworker named Luis Hernandez-Aguires, who like Hernandez is Mexican. He and one of the women ran into the motel room’s bathroom when the shooting started, and afterward called 911.

What followed was akin to a “comedy of errors,” Lipscomb said: Hernandez-Aguires does not speak English well. He has a heavy Mexican accent; his 911 operator had a significant Southern dialect. They could not understand each other, so Hernandez-Aguires put the motel clerk on the phone. The clerk was from India, and had an Indian accent the dispatcher could not comprehend.

Finally the second woman who had been in the motel room, Stella Lindsey, came in saying she had found Hernandez’ wallet out on the sidewalk. So they put her on the phone, and finally got the message across, Lipscomb said.

Both women identified Denson and Lowe from photo lineups, the prosecutor said. Hernandez-Aguires was so rattled by what happened that he could offer investigators little aid.

After the suspects were arrested, detectives checked cell phone records and saw the two had communicated just 10 minutes before the shooting and again the next day, Lipscomb said.

Representing Lowe, public defender Ray Lakes had to argue that his client is a drug dealer, not a murderer. Lowe was Christina Clark’s dealer, and when she called him for cocaine, he initially came to the motel with crack, her “drug of choice,” Lakes said.

But Hernandez wanted powdered cocaine, so Lowe had to leave to get the drug, Lakes said. He came back alone, dropped off the cocaine and left the room, the door closing behind him, before the shooting started, so his participation in what followed cannot be established beyond a reasonable doubt, Lakes told the jury.

Representing Denson was attorney Tim Flournoy, who went after the state’s witnesses and what he said were their conflicting accounts:

Hernandez-Aguires told police the shooter was “dark skinned,” but his client has a light complexion, he said. Hernandez-Aguires could identify no one in a photo lineup that included Lowe, and when shown Denson’s photo along with five others, he picked the wrong one, Flournoy said.

Lindsey had been smoking crack and was addled when the gunfire erupted, he said. She told police the shooter was 5 foot 6 to 5 foot 9 inches tall. Denson is over 6 feet tall, Flournoy said.

Shown photo lineups that included the suspects, Lindsey identified each as the one who fired the shots, each time saying she was “90-percent positive,” he said, adding, “The evidence is going to show that she’s not sure about anything.”

The prostitute, Clark, initially didn’t stick around to tell police anything, because she was on probation, he said: “When the man got shot, she took off.” Police had to hunt her down and arrest her, he said: “They’ve got her locked up in jail right now.” She’ll testify to anything the prosecution wants just to keep from going to prison, he said.

“These witnesses are all over the place” in their accounts of what happened, he said, adding Denson that night was at a trailer park with some friends, and never visited the motel.

The trial resumes at 9 a.m. today before Superior Court Judge Tracy Moulton Jr.

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