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Murder suspects turn down plea deal

By Kathy Jefcoats

kjefcoats@news-daily.com

JONESBORO — Two defendants facing murder charges turned down a deal Monday to plead guilty in exchange for life with the possibility of parole.

The deal would have meant a minimum of 30 years in prison for Chaz Jensen Ballard, 28, and Singlee Soun, 26. The men are accused in the February 2011 shooting death of James Johnson, 27, of Alabama during a botched drug deal at the Econo Lodge in Jonesboro.

Police said the men met to transact the purchase of methamphetamine but Johnson was ambushed and shot 10 times — seven with an AR and three with a 9 mm pistol. He was found the next day in the motel room.

But both men said Monday they'd take their chances with the jury. They could get life without parole if convicted.

Attorneys Neil Smith and Karlyn Skall argued unsuccessfully to sever the cases.

"When the two are tried together, it works out to half a jury of their peers," said Smith. "They have less than the guarantee of a fair trial. The two individuals are seen by the jury as lumped together."

Chief Judge Deborah Benefield disagreed and denied their motions. She also declined to bifurcate the weapon charges from the other felonies. Smith argued that Soun didn't possession a weapon until after the shooting occurred. Skall said the charge would place her client's character in a bad light with the jury.

Benefield agreed to keep out several self-serving hearsay statements made by Soun, at the request of Assistant District Attorney Travis Meyer. Meyer said Soun made several statements to multiple detectives including that he wasn't present during the shooting, he was there but only Ballard shot Johnson, disavowed having a gun and that he ran out just as the shots were fired.

However, Benefield denied Meyer's motion to keep the defense attorneys from questioning a witness about his alleged mental illness. Meyer said the witness reportedly suffers from schizophrenia and he argued the condition as being irrelevant to his testimony. Smith disagreed.

"The state of mind of any witness is always relevant," he said.

Benefield said the witness can be cross-examined about his frame of mind about events as he saw them.

"It's a very relevant matter," she said.

Ballard served about 16 months in state prison for convictions in Henry County of burglary and aggravated assault. He was released in June 2009. If he is convicted in Johnson's death, Meyers will present the felony during his sentencing phase.