What police typically call a “crime of opportunity” has become a calamity for two young men who in 2011 thought they easily could rob a Fort Benning contract worker of more than $1,600 cash as he tried to buy cocaine at a Victory Drive motel.
The robbery turned into a murder caught on audiotape, and their murder convictions turned into life sentences Monday for Dominique Lowe and Calvin Denson.
A Muscogee County jury Friday convicted Denson, the triggerman, of malice murder, felony murder and armed robbery.
Lowe, the drug dealer who set up the robbery, was convicted of felony murder and armed robbery.
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On Monday, Superior Court Judge Tracy Moulton Jr. merged Denson’s felony murder count into his malice murder conviction, sentencing Denson to life in prison for murder followed by 10 years in prison for armed robbery and 10 more years to serve on probation.
Authorities said Denson will be up for parole in 30 years, but still will have the 10 years for armed robbery yet to serve.
Moulton merged Lowe’s armed robbery conviction into his felony murder count and ordered him to serve life in prison. Lowe also will be up for parole in 30 years.
Felony murder means killing someone while committing a felony, in this case armed robbery, even if the homicide is unintentional. Malice murder means killing someone with intent.
The fatal shooting happened Sept. 9, 2011, in Room 223 of the Plaza Motel, 3540 Victory Drive. At the time Denson was 19 and Lowe 24.
Denson’s attorney, Tim Flournoy, during Monday’s sentencing hearing said the fatal shooting of Fort Benning construction worker Julian Hernandez was not intentional, as the defendants’ plan was only to rob him, not kill him.
Public defender Ray Lakes, who represented Lowe, argued during the trial that before the shooting, Lowe had left the motel room, the door closing behind him, so no evidence implicated him in what followed. Lowe will file a motion for a new trial, Lakes said Monday.
Denson also will appeal, said Flournoy: “I think he will exhaust all appellate remedies available.”
Denson’s defense was more of an offense: Flournoy attacked the state’s primary witnesses, two women who were in the room when Hernadez was gunned down. One was a prostitute with a crack habit; the other, who worked with Hernandez, had been smoking crack the day of the homicide.
Assistant District Attorney George Lipscomb said Monday that Flournoy’s attacks might have gained some advantage, if not for the recorded telephone call that corroborated their testimony.
It just so happened the admitted prostitute, Christina Clark, was on the phone with a Muscogee jail inmate named Marcus Price when the robbery occurred. The jail records all inmate calls, and the audio recording revealed that right before the shooting, Clark put Lowe on the phone with Price, because the two knew each other.
Clark was still on the phone when Lowe left and Denson came in, pointing a pistol and ordering everyone to get down on the floor.
“Oh my God! They’re robbing us!” a frantic Clark was heard telling Price on the recording played for the jury.
Later she shouted, “He’s shot! He’s down!” Then she could be heard telling others in the room that police had better not catch her there because she was on probation: “Oh my God! You’ve got to call the police! I’ve got to go! I can’t be here!”
It was of no benefit to the defense that when Clark wasn’t talking to Price in the midst of her panic, Price kept talking, and the jail recorded his ranting about how stupid Lowe was to rob someone in front of two witnesses who could identify him.
The two witnesses identified him and Denson in court, pointing out Lowe as the dealer and Denson as the gunman. The second woman, Stella Lindsey, told the court she got a good look at Denson because he came back into the room after the shooting to wipe surfaces where he might have left fingerprints.
Lindsey also detailed how during the robbery, Denson had come into the room holding a cloth over his face, but removed it when Hernandez refused to follow orders and instead wrestled with Denson for the gun.
Hernandez stiffened when the gun went off, she said, but he maintained his grip on Denson, who pulled the gun back, thrust it in again lower, and fired repeatedly — five shots in all, four that hit their target, leaving Hernandez dying on the floor.
It was the deadly end of a robbery Lowe and Denson must have thought would be easy after Lowe saw how much cash Hernandez had, having just cashed his paycheck that Friday. Witnesses said Hernandez that night tried to buy cocaine for his coworker and motel roommate Luis Hernandez-Aguires. Clark called Lowe, her dealer, to get it. When Lowe asked Hernandez for $60, Hernandez pulled out his entire wad of cash and peeled off the bills.
Seeing the money, Lowe recruited Denson to rob Hernandez as soon as Lowe delivered the drug and left, Lipscomb said — a crime of opportunity that happened at a most inopportune moment, for its instigators: during a recorded call from the Muscogee County Jail.
The pair never got Hernandez’ money. Denson left the motel room with the victim’s empty wallet. Police later found $1,619 in cash still in the dead man’s pocket.el.