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Date: Thursday, June 29, 2006
Byline: By SHAWN HOPKINS, Martinsville Bulletin

Summary: Maverick Thomas and Malvester Dixon were freed Wednesday following 20 months in jail after Martinsville Commonwealth's Attorney Joan Ziglar announced she will not seek new trials against them.

"Based upon the recantation by Billy Manns, the charges against Maverick Thomas will be nolle prossed (not prosecuted) later today," Ziglar said at a press conference Wednesday.

Attorneys for Dixon confirmed that also applied to his case, although Ziglar said she could not discuss that case because of a gag order issued in it.

Thomas and Dixon had been found guilty in separate trials in connection with the death of Thomas' wife, Lisa, last year based primarily on the testimony of Billy Ray Manns, who said the men paid him $10,000 to shoot Lisa Thomas in September 2000.

Thomas was facing life in prison on the capital murder-for-hire charge and related charges, and Dixon faced a 16-year sentence on conspiracy to commit capital murder for hire and related charges. Those convictions were washed away after judges granted the men new trials June 21 because Manns recanted.

Ziglar said she has the option of bringing charges again in the case if new evidence is found.

"If and only if new information develops will the case be reinstituted," she said.

After Henry County Circuit Court Judge David Williams, who presided in the Thomas case, and Roanoke City Circuit Court Judge Clifford Weckstein, who presided in Dixon's case, signed orders noting Ziglar's decision, the men were released. Thomas was released Wednesday afternoon, and Dixon was released later in the day.

Attorneys for both men said their clients were happy to be released.

"He's excited to know that's he's going to be going home," said Dixon attorney Anthony Anderson. Anderson said Ziglar's decision was "appropriate under all the circumstances."

Dixon attorney said he hopes this will be the end of the case as far as Dixon is concerned.

"Two men's lives were threatened based on perjured testimony, and there was a very real danger in this case that two innocent men could have been incarcerated for a very long time," he said. "We are very appreciative of the role three conscientious and distinguished judges played in this case, Judge (Martin F.) Clark, Judge Weckstein and Judge Williams."

Clark, who presides in Patrick County, was the first judge in Dixon's case. He later was replaced by Weckstein.

Thomas attorney David Furrow also said he thought the decision was correct.

"We feel like we got the right result. We feel like he was innocent," he said.

Tom Blaylock, another Thomas attorney, said his client was happy to be released and eager to get the ordeal behind him and get back to his family. Blaylock said Thomas also is glad that Manns has told the truth so Thomas can know what happened to his wife without speculating.

Ziglar said there will be "much debate" on what should happen to Manns now that he has changed his story, including whether the cooperation agreement that allowed him to serve only one year of a 20-year sentence for a conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire charge in the case can be revoked or if he can face perjury charges for lying during the trials. Ziglar said only a court can decide those issues.

Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers also spoke at the press conference, and described the case as the "trail and trial" of many disappointments. He said it started with standing over Lisa Thomas' body Sept. 26, 2000, wondering what kind of "cold ruthless killer" could take the life of a young woman with two children.

He said it took 13 months before the department got a break in the case, but when it did it interviewed seven of Manns' friends and relatives whom Manns had told specific details of the crime, including the number of times he shot her, where he shot her and what gun he used. Manns even held up Maverick Thomas' business card and said he was paid to commit the murder by Thomas, Rogers said police were told. Witnesses also reported seeing Manns with at least $500 the day after the shooting and that he bought expensive shoes, jewelry and clothes afterward.

Rogers said, however, when authorities interviewed Manns he would not cooperate, and that not being able to charge anyone else was a disappointment. Watching Manns walk out of a courtroom in 2002, "laughing, a free man" after being acquitted of killing Thomas, was a big disappointment, Rogers said.

Manns was arrested in the county on unrelated charges and eventually told Henry County Sheriff's Maj. Kimmy Nester the same story he told friends and family after the killing, which allowed Ziglar to prosecute Thomas and Dixon, Rogers said.

Ziglar said Manns passed a lie detector test -- taken at her insistence -- on this statement.

Rogers said he does not know if Manns is lying now that he has recanted his story, but he said Manns' behavior has been the "biggest disappointment in this whole investigation."

The chief added that he "could go on and on" about the outstanding job Ziglar did in the face of a lot of criticism. He said if Ziglar had not prosecuted Thomas and Dixon the way she did, she would not have been doing her job.

"For the past five years she has worked as hard as anybody," he said. "Her job is to seek justice for this ruthless killing of Lisa Thomas. And sometimes people kind of forget her (Lisa Thomas)."

Ziglar and Rogers fielded numerous questions and criticisms during the roughly 30-minute press conference. Ziglar said she stood by the decisions she made during the prosecution, though with the benefit of hindsight she might have treated Manns differently.

"Sure I would want to see him get 20 years (for the conspiracy to commit murder charge)," she said.

Ziglar admitted the agreement to suspend 19 years of that sentence may be questioned now that, according to Manns, there were no other conspirators. Ziglar said it is obvious that a conspiracy cannot occur with just one person. She said Manns might be recanting now as a way of attacking his conviction on that charge.

She was asked if Manns had "trumped" the judicial system. She said Manns has done what he has done.

"If you call that trumping the system ... then maybe he did," she said.

She said she is talking with the state attorney general's office about whether Manns can be punished for changing his testimony with perjury or other charges.

"If we can, we will. If we can't, we won't," she said.

Ziglar's handling of the case also was called into question, specifically relating to charges being brought against Thomas and Dixon without concrete physical evidence. Ziglar responded that cases often are prosecuted on circumstantial evidence.

She also was criticized for basing her prosecutions on Manns' testimony.

"I used the law," Ziglar said. "I got convictions on the cases."

She said now "they are being set aside because somebody changed their story."

In Ziglar's defense, Rogers said "you had to rely on Billy Manns" to prosecute the case.

Ziglar was questioned about statements by judges in the cases who questioned if there was enough evidence to find the defendants guilty. Ziglar said those judges followed the law and did not try to substitute their opinions for the juries'. If they had felt the cases should not go to a jury, she said, they had opportunities to grant motions to strike charges in both cases.

"They let the jury make the decision," she said.

Ziglar said she has been in contact with the family of Lisa Thomas almost every day since June 21, when the new trials were granted in the case.

"They stand by this decision," she said.

Ziglar was asked if she would apologize to Dixon and Thomas for putting them in prison. Ziglar responded, "why would I apologize?" for doing what she was elected to do by the people. She also said she could not comment on whether Dixon and Thomas would be entitled to financial compensation for their months of imprisonment.

Rogers said he feels the case is open in that if the police get additional information about it in the future, they can bring charges.

Ziglar would not comment on whether she feels Thomas and Dixon are innocent.

"I'm not going to comment on my personal beliefs," she said.

Rogers, however, did answer when asked if he eventually would admit that Thomas and Dixon were innocent and had nothing to do with the crime.

"Oh, I don't know that I'll ever say that," he said.

Dixon grateful he and Thomas are out of jail

After almost two years, Malvester Dixon walked out of the Martinsville Jail into afternoon sunlight Wednesday and embraced his wife and children.

"It feels wonderful," said Dixon, dressed in a light-colored shirt and slacks and carrying some of his belongings.

Dixon was found guilty last year of conspiracy to commit capital murder for hire in the death of Lisa Thomas on Sept. 26, 2000. He faced a 16-year prison sentence for that and related charges until a key witness in the case, Billy Ray Manns, recanted his testimony June 21 and a new trial was ordered.

Earlier Wednesday, Martinsville Commonwealth's Attorney Joan Ziglar filed court papers to not prosecute the charges.

Dixon said he thanked God for the truth that freed him and Lisa Thomas' husband, Maverick Thomas, who was convicted last year of capital murder for hire and faced a life sentence in the case.

"The truth came and set us free," Dixon said.

Dixon said his 20 months in jail have been difficult.

"If you want to know where hell is, hell is in jail," he said.

When asked if he ever lost hope that he would be freed, Dixon said it had been difficult, but at one point "God gave me peace," and he was able to cope.

He declined to comment on whether his earlier statements of innocence had been vindicated or if he felt wronged by his time in jail. He said the main wrong in the whole incident is the death of Lisa Thomas.

"The worst part of it is that we lost our sister Lisa," he said.

When his wife, Sylvia Dixon, and his children arrived to pick him up outside the jail, Dixon ran toward them for an embrace. He spent a while hugging his children, who he said had grown quite a bit while he was incarcerated.

"There goes the best part of me," he said, referring to his wife and children.

Sylvia Dixon said "words cannot explain" how she feels now that her husband is free.

"I'm just happy," she said.

When asked if he planned to remain in the community, Dixon said he did not know.

When asked if lingering suspicion about his guilt would make that difficult, Dixon said even God has never had the support of everyone.

Dixon said he does not expect everyone to agree with him or like him. However, he said, they can find no deeds of his to support their criticisms.

Dixon said he feels God will bring the whole truth about the Lisa Thomas case to light.

"And I want it to come out as bad as anybody," he said.


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