MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A young girl who told police her father forced her to help as he cut up her mother's body with an electric saw said she could only look away when the head fell to the floor.
The girl is the chief witness against James Hawkins, 31, a prison parolee charged with first-degree murder in the death of Charlene Gaither, 28, a longtime companion with whom he had three children. His trial is scheduled for September and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Police say Gaither was killed in February 2008 at the apartment she shared with Hawkins, their then 12-year-old daughter, Keyuna Thomas, and two boys, ages 9 and 11.
Keyuna, now 13, told police she saw Hawkins stab her mother in the neck with a knife and then strangle her after she threatened to call police during an argument.
The girl told police her father forced her to help as he cut up the body a day after the killing.
Hawkins denies killing Gaither, but police say he acknowledged dumping her body along a rural highway after severing her head, hands and feet.
"We hope to establish that he, in fact, gave no statement," said defense lawyer Larry Nance. "That's his position, that he didn't say that."
But prosecutors say Hawkins, who had filed a missing person report on Gaither, blurted out to police that he had disposed of her body.
"It was a voluntary statement, a spontaneous statement," assistant state prosecutor Patience Branham said.
Branham spoke Monday after a scheduled court hearing was postponed until May 22 on a defense petition to dismiss the alleged statement.
Hawkins, who is being held on a $4 million bond, has denied speaking with detectives about the killing.
Authorities say Gaither died on Feb. 9, 2008, about five months after Hawkins was paroled on a 15-year prison sentence for a string of robberies. His parole was set to end in December.
His daughter was 4 when Hawkins was convicted of armed robbery in 1999.
Hawkins reported Gaither missing Feb. 12 and her torso was found two days later in rural Mississippi, just south of Memphis. The severed body parts were not found, and the body was identified through DNA analysis.
The girl, now in the custody of her mother's family, said her younger brothers did not witness the slaying nor see their mother's body. But, she said, she was forced to help clean up the bloody scene and drag the body to a freezer where it was stored temporarily.
"I told my dad I didn't want to do this anymore," she told police. "He says, 'You want to die, too?'"
A psychiatric exam found Hawkins competent to stand trial.