The wheels of justice: active homicide cases in Cullman County, part 2

Top row, left to right: Bradford Neal Meeks, Jonathan Biggs, William Thomas Maddux; second row, left to right: Justina Freeman, Haven Andree McNeil, Donald Trammell; third row, left to right: Brett Steven Amerson, Charles Patrick Wayne Burgess and Walter John Cornelius III. (Cullman County Sheriff’s Office and Cullman Police Department)

Editor’s note: All persons are considered innocent until proven guilty.

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Tribune continues its review of pending homicide cases in Cullman County, and reports on their current status and actions taken this year. 

Bradford Neal Meeks – reckless murder of Curt Wilson in May 2017

Meeks, represented before Judge Gregory Nicholas by Johnny Berry and Brandon Little, was indicted Oct. 12, 2017 for reckless murder, two counts of driving under the influence, (improper) driving on roadways laned for traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road, open container and third-degree assault (for injuries sustained by Curt Wilson’s mother Ashley Wilson).  His case has been quite active this year, complicated by two other sets of charges.

Meeks was incarcerated in Madison County until late January for probation violation in an unrelated case there.  He still faces trial in that case, but it will likely wait until the conclusion of the reckless murder case in Cullman County.

On Jan. 22, 2019, the defense filed notice of its intent to subpoena Verizon for Ashley Wilson’s cell phone records for a range of hours that include the time of the accident on May 7, 2017. Two days later, the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to quash the subpoena. On March 13, Nicholas quashed the subpoena, accusing the defense of going on a “fishing expedition” for anything it can use against Wilson. The judge did agree to review the records himself.

On Feb. 28, roughly a month after he was released from the Madison County jail, Meeks was arrested for third-degree domestic violence-harassment. Arresting officers discovered him in possession of methamphetamine, and he was also charged with possession of a controlled substance. Later that same day, Meeks’ father Billy Meeks, who had signed a property bond in the murder case, filed a motion to withdraw as the bondsman in his son’s case, writing, “Son is not doing right!” His request was granted and Brad Meeks’ bail was revoked.

The reckless murder case is scheduled for the Aug. 12, 2019 trial docket. Meeks is in jail.

Jonathan Biggs – reckless murder of Tonya and Rhianna Busbee in March 2017

Biggs, represented before Judge Martha Williams by Decatur-based attorney Brian White, was indicted Oct. 5, 2017 for two counts of reckless murder, two counts of driving under the influence, reckless driving and (improper) driving on roadways laned for traffic.  An Ohio resident, Biggs was extradited back to Cullman later that month. Released on bail, he had to agree to stay with relatives who live in Cullman County.

Biggs’ case has been relatively inactive this year, except for three continuances: one in February and two in May. The case is not currently scheduled for trial.  He is out on bond.

William Thomas Maddux – murder of Perry Shoemake in November 2017

Maddux, currently represented before Nicholas by Jason Knight, was indicted May 18, 2018 for murder in the death of his stepfather.  Following the incident, he attempted to take his own life and was hospitalized for an extended period at UAB Hospital for treatment of his injuries and psychiatric care.

His case has been inactive this year, except for a continuance in March and the recent withdrawal of two previous attorneys: Michael Thornton and Wayne Fuller.

Justina Freeman – manslaughter of Blakelee Jayce Bryant in May 2012

Freeman was indicted along with co-defendant B.J. Bryant in 2013 for criminally negligent homicide, aggravated child abuse and manslaughter in the bathtub drowning of their 13-month-old daughter. The Cullman County District Attorney’s Office alleged that Bryant, then 21, and Freeman, then 17, left the child unattended in the tub for an extended period of time.

Bryant pleaded guilty to aggravated child abuse in 2015 and agreed to testify against Freeman, receiving five years of probation.  

Freeman failed to appear for a court date in April 2016, and her case has been inactive since.  She was arrested a few months later, along with two other suspects, for a burglary in north Jefferson County.

Haven Andree McNeil – manslaughter of James Lee Sanson in May 2016

Represented before Nicholas by Champ Crocker, Robert Tuten and Nickolas Rowlan Heatherly, McNeil was indicted Aug. 22, 2017 for manslaughter, charged with “causing acceleration/deceleration head trauma” (a term often associated with shaken baby syndrome) to 2-year-old Sanson.

In February 2019, the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office protested that the defense had not provided necessary documents to the state ahead of a scheduled March 18 trial date.  The court ordered both sides to turn over all necessary documents.

In March, the state gave notice that it intended to introduce evidence from previous domestic violence cases involving an unrelated child and McNeil’s wife.  The defense objected, and the evidence was ultimately excluded.

Four continuances have been granted this year for defense attorney schedule conflicts, and one for a medical issue on the part of the defendant. No pending trial date is currently recorded in the system.  Court computer records indicate that McNeil is in jail, but documents on file indicate that he is out on bond.

Donald Trammell – manslaughter of Logan Wayne Trammell in December 2017

Trammell, represented before Nicholas by Johnny Berry and Brandon Little, was indicted Feb. 15, 2018 for manslaughter in the shooting death of his son, who at the time of the shooting was driving a truck the defendant claimed he thought was being stolen by an unknown person.

Trammell was given bond, but that bond was revoked in January 2019 after he was arrested on multiple new charges, including drug possession, stalking and violating a protective order.  His trial was set for mid-March, but the case has received three defense-requested continuances and currently has no assigned date in the system.

Brett Steven Amerson – reckless murder of Bradley Ray Patterson in December 2018

Amerson, represented before District Judge Rusty Turner by Sara Baker, was charged with manslaughter, (reckless) murder, homicide by vehicle, leaving the scene of an accident, felony DUI, failure to yield, improper turn and driving with a revoked or suspended license.

After his arrest, Amerson was found to be facing charges in Jefferson County and was transferred there. Earlier this month, that case was disposed and he was ordered to be returned to Cullman. Facing well over $100,000 in cash bonds in Cullman County charges due to an extensive criminal history, he is in jail.

Charles Patrick Wayne Burgess – murder of Tommy Piper in April 2019

Burgess, represented by Stephen Parker before Turner, was charged with murder after he confronted Piper at his home. After being disarmed and sent away by police, the defendant allegedly returned later with at least one more firearm, forced his way into the house, and shot the victim in the head.

In June, sitting in jail, Burgess requested a reduction of his bail to a minimum property bond, claiming that his incarceration under the current federal injunction violated his rights.  At a preliminary hearing this week, Nicholas, sitting in for Turner, declined to consider the bond request, and added additional charges for multiple burglaries of campers at Smith Lake, which were linked to Burgess by DNA evidence, as well as pawn records and pawn shop security camera footage.  He remains in jail as his case prepares to go to a grand jury.

Walter John Cornelius III- reckless manslaughter of Hannah Nicole Bates in February 2018

Cornelius, represented before Williams by Johnny Berry and Brandon Little, was indicted May 17, 2018 for manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and public intoxication in the death of Bates during an accident at Stony Lonesome OHV Park.  This year, his case has been relatively inactive, having received four continuances, but it is listed on the Aug. 12, 2019 trial docket.  He is out on bond.

How long does an average case take to go to trial?

Defendants have the right to a speedy trial, unless they waive that right. Many do, in order to provide more time for defense attorneys to prepare their cases. 

In some cases, both prosecutors and defense teams have to wait for a year or even longer for forensic evidence and testing results to come back from a state crime lab. Regardless of what you see on TV, the average local law enforcement agency does not have its own lab or even its own dedicated crime scene technicians. Local department investigators are trained in gathering and preserving evidence, and establishing a chain of custody for the evidence, until it can be delivered to one of the state’s certified facilities. Cullman sends medical evidence to a medical facility in Huntsville that serves 22 north Alabama counties. Drug chemistry, forensic biology and firearm and tool mark evidence are submitted to a second Huntsville facility that serves 13 counties. Toxicology evidence and fire debris from north Alabama have to be sent to the Birmingham regional facility, which has 22 central Alabama counties of its own to serve.

Examination of reports from multiple jurisdictions across the country in the last 10 years indicates that one- to two-year wait times are common in the most serious cases like murder, and that wait times of up to three years are not completely out of the ordinary.  Most of Cullman County’s cases are within that typical span, meaning that, though the wheels of justice turn slowly, they are not any slower in Cullman County than in other places.

Read part 1 here.

Copyright 2019 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Top row, left to right: Bradford Neal Meeks, Jonathan Biggs, William Thomas Maddux; second row, left to right: Justina Freeman, Haven Andree McNeil, Donald Trammell; third row, left to right: Brett Steven Amerson, Charles Patrick Wayne Burgess and Walter John Cornelius III. (Cullman County Sheriff’s Office and Cullman Police Department)

W.C. Mann