A Rock Island man, serving a four year sentence for reckless homicide, may have blown any chance he had to be set free from prison after telling a state parole board member Thursday that he should not be granted early release.
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The parole hearing for 40 year old James P. Vernon was held at the Cookeville offices of the Tennessee Board of Probation. Neither Vernon nor the state parole board member, Lisa Jones were present in Cookeville for the hearing. Jones presided by video conference from her office in Savannah while Vernon was connected by video from the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Hickman County, where he is incarcerated. Members of the victim's family and the assistant district attorney general, who were present in Cookeville, could see Jones and Vernon on a television monitor and they could be seen by Jones and Vernon on a monitor from their locations.
Vernon, convicted of reckless homicide in the brutal beating of 24 year old Joseph David "Joey" Clark on Center Hill Lake in July, 2009, received the four year prison sentence in DeKalb County Criminal Court on January 26th.
After a thirty minute hearing Thursday and just before delivering her decision to vote against parole, Jones asked Vernon for a comment on why he should be set free. "You have an opportunity now to tell me why you believe that I should vote to parole you today".
Vernon responded, " I don't think you should".
Jones then asked " So you do not believe that you should be paroled"?
Vernon answered " No ma'am"
Jones concluded "Because of the serious nature of the crime of which you have been convicted, I can't vote to parole you. My vote is going to be to balance your sentence. I have but one vote. Your case is not final today. Your case is a three vote case. You have one vote to balance your sentence. Your file will now be forwarded to other board members across the state until there are three votes (concurring). That usually takes three to four weeks. If you are inclined you have limited rights to appeal."
Vernon has already served a total of twenty three months since his initial arrest and subsequent conviction. His sentence is set to expire on January 28, 2013, although that date could be moved back.
Originally charged with first degree murder, Vernon stood trial on Tuesday, November 30th, 2010 in DeKalb County Criminal Court for second degree murder. Later that evening the jury, made of up six men and six women, returned from it's deliberations with a verdict of reckless homicide.
State prosecutors said Vernon was responsible for the death of Clark, who was severely beaten during an attack on a houseboat at Center Hill Lake July 7th, 2009. Clark died a week later from his injuries at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. The fight was apparently over Vernon's missing wallet, which he accused Clark of stealing. The assault occurred in DeKalb County, only a short distance from Horsehoe Bend Marina, which is in White County.
Vernon, who testified during the trial in his own defense, said that he met Clark on the fourth of July, 2009 during an outing on the lake. Two days later, July 6th Vernon said Clark showed up at his boat, just to hang out. Vernon invited him inside but a short time later, Vernon said Clark suddenly left, saying he had to go. Vernon looked around and noticed that his wallet, which he kept on the bar near the dining table, was missing. Thinking that Clark took it, Vernon followed after Clark and confronted him about the wallet, which he said contained $50. Clark denied taking the wallet and Vernon apparently never found it.
The next night, July 7th, Vernon said he showed up at a friend's houseboat and that Clark later arrived. Witnesses testified that Clark was already at the boat when Vernon got there. Vernon apparently confronted Clark again about the wallet. Clark denied taking the wallet and then made another comment which apparently caused Vernon to become angry. Vernon began punching Clark. According to the witnesses, Vernon inflicted three or four blows to Clark and then continued beating him after he fell to the floor unconscious, even though witnesses tried to restrain Vernon and called for him to stop.
Clark's mother Teresa Prater, spoke against Vernon's early release during Thursday's parole hearing. "Joey was my son. My one and only child. This man (Vernon) has no idea how many lives that he has ruined. This man entered a boat that he was not even invited onto and he beat my son. The first three licks he was unconscious and he continued to beat him, stomp him, and kick him in the head. He (Vernon) has never shown any remorse. He has never said he was sorry. He did this and he should be punished for it. Four years is not near enough for what he has done and I don't think that he should get any leeway at all. My son was in the hospital for eight days. I got to see him twice a day. When I went in that room I could not touch him. I could not speak to him. All I could do was stand there and watch my baby die. For eight days he fought for his life til he couldn't fight anymore," said Prater.
Prater's father and Clark's grandfather Harold Gay also pleaded against parole for Vernon. " I don't think justice was done to start with at the trial. The man didn't get anything near what he deserved. I don't think the man should be released at such an early time for the heinous crime that he committed, beating this kid to death. There's no proof that Joey took the wallet. Anyway, if he did (steal the wallet) to beat a man to death over $50 is uncalled for and inhuman. I don't think the man should be released," said Gay.
Greg Strong, an Assistant District Attorney who helped prosecute the case, added that the state's position is that Vernon should remain in prison. "He still doesn't show any remorse for the death of Joey Clark. He talked about that he has a good relationship with his adult daughter but based on his actions, the family that sits here with me today will never have any kind of relationship with their son. I don't think he has dealt with any kind of anger issues. I think they are still present. As witnesses recounted what happened after about two to four punches to his head, Mr. Clark was no longer even able to defend himself and the beating continued by some witness accounts up to twenty punches and some kicks as well. He still won't accept the accountability for that. The state takes the position and I support fully the family in this that the time that he has served is in no way commensurate with the action that he took on that night on a houseboat and I don't know that any amount of time could be. He has taken away any chance of a relationship that this family has with Mr. Joey Clark. The state is adamantly opposed to parole in this situation," said Strong.
Earlier during the hearing, state parole board member Jones asked Vernon about the incident leading up to the beating of Clark. The following is that exchange between Jones and Clark:
Vernon: "Mr Clark had stole something from me and while meeting with him a couple of days later after the theft offense, we got into a fight about it."
Jones: "How do you know Mr. Clark was the one who stole something from you"?
Vernon: "Because we were the only two in the room and when he left the room the item was gone".
Jones: "What do you believe he stole from you"?
Vernon: "My wallet"
Jones: "How long had you known Mr. Clark"?
Vernon: "That was the second time I had ever met him".
Jones: "The information I have is that you severely beat him. He was hospitalized and I believe he died as a result of that beating a few days later. Is that what you know"?
Vernon: "Yes ma'am"
Jones: "Were drugs or alcohol involved in this"?
Vernon: "I had been drinking"
Jones: "Was there not a better way to handle the situation other than beating the man to death"?
Vernon: "Yes ma'am"
Jones: "How would you have handled this current situation differently"?
Vernon: "I could have just got up and walked away and just dealt with the loss of what he stole from me"
Jones also asked Vernon about a previous misdemeanor aggravated domestic assault case against him involving his girlfriend which was on his record at the time of the beating of Clark.
Jones: " What about with your girlfriend, in that instance"?
Vernon: "In the report that you're probably reading, it says that I beat her up, which isn't the case, as she later stated in court".
Jones: "Why then did you get the misdemeanor aggravated domestic assault offense"?
Vernon: "Because that's what the judge give me"
Jones: "But you maintain that you did not do that"?
Vernon: "I did not severely beat her, no ma'am. She tried to stab me with a pair of scissors and I shoved her away from me and she went over a chair and hit her nose on a chair and her nose was bleeding when they (officers) got there"
Jones: "You have an opportunity now to tell me why you believe that I should vote to parole you today"?
Vernon: "I don't think you should"
Jones: "So you do not believe that you should be paroled"?
Vernon: "No ma'am"
Jones: "Mr. Vernon there's no doubt that the lives of the family and friends of Mr. Clark will never be the same. You could and should have walked away or handled the situation in a different way. But instead you beat a man until he lost his life. That being said, because of the serious nature of the crime of which you have been convicted, I can't vote to parole you. My vote is going to be to balance your sentence. I have but one vote. Your case is not final today. Your case is a three vote case. You have one vote to balance your sentence. Your file will now be forwarded to other board members across the state until there are three votes (concurring). That usually takes three to four weeks. If you are inclined you have limited rights to appeal", said Jones.
Jones noted that Vernon had no criminal convictions as a juvenile but has a record of three misdemeanors as an adult, in addition to the reckless homicide felony. Those previous charges include the aggravated domestic assault on his girlfriend in which he received a sentence of 11 months and 29 days with 10 days to serve on weekends; a theft of property up to $500; and a failure to appear.
Vernon said he is a graduate of Warren County High School and completed a vocational course in welding. His last place of employment was Ace Fence in Warren County from 2007-08. He left Ace to work for himself as a handyman and carpenter.
Vernon is divorced and has an adult daughter, in her early 20's. Vernon said he has a good relationship with her.
According to Vernon, he now holds a maintenance position at Turney and has had no disciplinary problems or write-ups since being incarcerated.
If granted parole, Vernon said he would have a home with his parents. As for a job, Vernon said he would like to go to driving a truck.