Rodger Ackerson stopped outside a Wake County courtroom on Wednesday, collected his thoughts about the trial that had just ended in a second-degree murder verdict, and faced a scrum of reporters.
Amanda Hayes, a 41-year-old one-time actress, had issued an apology to the court about what happened to Laura Jean Ackerson, the 27-year-old Kinston woman killed and dismembered in July 2011.
Crews from local news networks, Inside Edition and other national TV shows trained their cameras on the red-faced and emotional father who spent the past 3 1/2 weeks monitoring the trial of one of the two people accused of murdering his daughter.
They wanted a sound bite of his thoughts about the verdict and the apology.
“She’s a manipulator, she’s a liar,” Rodger Ackerson said of Hayes, who had testified in her defense. “She uses that sing-songy voice when she wants to get something from you. That doesn’t work with me.”
“This whole mess is about four people,” Ackerson said quietly once the camera crews had moved to the next interview. “It’s about Laura and three kids.”
Ackerson was the mother of two boys, two sons she shared with Grant Hayes, the 34-year-old husband of Amanda Hayes.
Grant Hayes, who also had a daughter with Amanda Hayes, was convicted of first-degree murder in September, 26 months after Laura Ackerson’s body was found in pieces in a Texas creek.
Prosecutors contended that Grant and Amanda Hayes worked in concert to murder Ackerson, then transport her dismembered body cross-country in coolers packed into a U-Haul trailer.
Amanda Hayes testified over the course of two days that she did not kill Ackerson nor help with the dismemberment. She said she did not know that Ackerson was dead in July 2011 until arriving at her sister’s house in Texas and having a conversation with her husband outside, under the cloak of darkness, as he fingered a machete.
Amanda Hayes and her attorneys argued that she was a victim, too, in a gruesome case that garnered interest from NBC’s Dateline, cable TV’s HLN and its long-running host Nancy Grace, and other court shows. Amanda Hayes said she was coerced and afraid of her husband. She said she was fearful that he would harm her grown daughter and the infant Lilly, barely a month old when Ackerson was killed.
Lilly, now 3, lives with Patsy Hayes, the mother of Grant Hayes. Gentle Hayes and Little Grant Hayes, Ackerson’s sons with Grant Hayes, also are with Patsy Hayes and her husband in Kinston.
The lives of the three children were turned upside down on July 13, 2011, when prosecutors contend Laura Ackerson was murdered in the Wake County apartment where Grant and Amanda Hayes lived.
Grant Hayes and Ackerson were involved in a custody battle over the boys, and prosecutors contended that Amanda Hayes wanted Ackerson out of their lives.
Grant Hayes was sentenced to life in prison, but has appealed his verdict.
The defense team for Amanda Hayes said Wednesday they expect to appeal her verdict, too, but they have several days to give official notice.
The nine women and three men who found Amanda Hayes guilty of second-degree murder left the Wake County courthouse Wednesday afternoon with law-enforcement escorts. They did not elaborate on the deliberations, which spanned nearly 13 hours over three days.
Raymond Tarlton, a member of the defense team, said afterward that he had at least one question he would love for the jury to answer.
“What I would ask is: ‘What do you think happened in the apartment?’ ” Tarlton said. “We offered wildly contrasting views.”
Prosecutors contended that Amanda Hayes’ time on the witness stand was “the performance of her life.” Amanda Hayes had studied acting and had small roles in several TV shows before she met Grant Hayes.
Prosecutor Becky Holt said Amanda Hayes had been preparing for her courtroom performance this month for nearly two years. Holt said Hayes had access to police reports and evidence in the case and developed a storyline that seemed “too rehearsed.”
Apology before sentencing
The prosecutors had a similar critique of the apology before sentencing.
“Your honor, I would just like to apologize with my whole heart, being, soul – first to Laura, I apologize to her, to her family, to her children, to my family, to Grant’s family, to everyone who had to work this case, to everyone who had to sit through this trial, to everyone in the media who has had to watch this and that it has touched their life,” Amanda Hayes told Judge Don Stephens.
“I am so so sorry that this touched my life in any shape, form or fashion or anyone that I love or care about or anyone and I truly, truly am sorry with every ounce of my soul.”
Johnny Gaskins and Rosemary Godwin, her defense attorneys, said Amanda Hayes had been remorseful about what happened to Ackerson.
They also said their client had steeled herself for any verdict.
“She had made peace with herself that she could not control the outcome,” Godwin said.
Stephens looked down from the bench at Amanda Hayes, after Godwin asked for leniency in sentencing. He weighed the argument and then handed down a sentence that could range from 13 to 16 years with credit for the 2 1/2 years already served.
“My problem, I think, here is that I personally believe, based on my view of the evidence, that it is quite possible and likely that Amanda Hayes could have saved the life of Laura Ackerson and she chose not to,” Stephens said. “She chose to participate in her killing.”