Killer gets 16 years in Oaks' death

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   A Cove Creek man was sentenced Thursday to 16 years in prison for the May 2001 shooting death of Roger Lynn Oaks Jr., 23, of Roan Mountain.
   Terry Dean Harrell, 50, 226 Cove Creek Road, when asked whether he had anything to say to the Oaks family, told them, "I'm 'terrible, terrible' sorry this happened. I wish to God it hadn't."
   Harrell entered a no contest plea to a charge of second-degree murder Jan. 18, rather than go to trial and face a charge of first-degree. The Oaks family raised strong objections to the plea agreement, saying they would rather take their chances in court. The state, however, did not feel it could prove premeditation -- a requirement for a first-degree conviction.
   Based on Thursday's sentence, Harrell, who prior to the murder had no criminal record, could be paroled after 14 years if he earns credit for good behavior.
   During Thursday's sentencing hearing before Carter County Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown, Harrell said he had known Oaks and his wife, Amanda, about four years and had been romantically involved with Amanda the last year and a half.
   Harrell said he took her out to eat or shopping and sometimes they spent the night together. He told the court he had bought her a car, jewelry, clothes, even visits to a tanning bed -- "anything she wanted." Under questioning, Harrell admitted he was in love with Amanda and that she told him she was going to divorce Roger and marry him. However, Harrell said, that was not the reason he shot Oaks.
   "He threatened me, my brother, my niece and the kids. He threatened to kill me and burn me out," Harrell said.
   During a preliminary hearing June 27, 2001, in General Sessions Court, Prosecutor Mark Hill played the 911 tape made on the day of the murder. During the first call, Harrell told the dispatcher, "I shot a feller up here on Cove Creek ..."
   911: Who did you shoot?
   Harrell: Roger Oaks.
   911: Roger Oaks? Is he dead?
   Harrell: I don't know. ... He came out on the porch and he said he busted my stove and tore my place up and I shot him.
   911: What did you shoot him with?
   Harrell: A .45 automatic.
   During another call to 911, the dispatcher asked Harrell whether Oaks had been drinking.
   "I don't know," he said.
   Thursday, however, Harrell testified that on the day of the murder he heard a loud noise and went over to the apartment, which he rented to the Oakses. "Roger was doped up -- drinking and on drugs. He was screaming and cussing ...," Harrell said. He told the court Roger put his hand into his pocket, and thinking he had a gun with him, "I shot him."
   Oaks was shot six times, in the mouth, chest and back.
   On May 14 -- the day of the murder -- after a period of separation, Oaks returned to the apartment he shared with his wife. Carter County Sheriff's Department Investigator Lt. Jamie Jenkins said Amanda Oaks gave a statement after the shooting, saying that she was sitting on the couch in the living room of their apartment about 8:30 a.m., smoking a cigarette, when her husband came to the door. Only Amanda and the Oaks' 16-month-old daughter were home at the time. Their son, Devon, who turned 5 years old Thursday, had spent the night at her brother's house next door.
   Amanda stated during the preliminary hearing that she and Roger began arguing "because I heard he had been with someone else. He said it wasn't true. He hit the stove and broke the glass. I told him I believed him and we would work everything out."
   She said she injured her hand during a car accident and that after they argued, Roger helped her wash her hair and get dressed in preparation for a visit to the doctor. As they were preparing to leave, she said, "Dean came to the door and asked if anything was broken. I said, 'Only the stove glass. Roger and me will fix it; we'll buy a new one.'
   "The next thing I knew, Dean pulled a gun ...," she said.
   Defense attorney Stacy Street questioned Lt. Jenkins about the oven door. Jenkins said that on the day of the murder there were no glass fragments on the floor and no visible signs of a fight.
   After the investigation, Street and Jenkins went to the apartment and found that glass fragments had mysteriously appeared in a garbage can and around the stove. Neighbors told investigators the stove door actually had been broken in January.
   "Glass was put at the scene after the investigation?" Judge Brown asked.
   "Yes, your honor," Prosecutor Ken Baldwin said.
   Barbara Oaks, mother of Roger Jr., said she and her husband, Roger Sr., now have custody of their grandchildren. "Since their father died, their mother up and abandoned them," she said.
   The children had been distraught since their father's murder, according to Mrs. Oaks. When the family put up a headstone for Roger Jr., his little girl "kissed the headstone and said, 'I love you, daddy.' " His little boy, she said, "knows his dad is not coming back.
   "Not a single day goes by that we don't think of it ... It was just senseless," Mrs. Oaks said. "I wish he (Harrell) would get life without the possibility of parole. I don't want him to get the death penalty ... that's the easy way out."
   When asked whether she had anything to say to Harrell, Mrs. Oaks said, "I hope you burn in hell."
   Harrell could have received a minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum of 25 years. It was agreed that sentencing would start at midpoint -- 20 years. Prosecutor Baldwin asked for enhancement, saying, "I don't buy his (Harrell's) remarks, and I don't buy his explanation." Baldwin said the presence of Amanda Oaks and the child at the time of the shooting endangered them and were enhancing circumstances.
   Judge Brown disagreed, saying, "The state did not argue, but the court finds that he had a firearm. The Legislature thinks that's a reason for enhancement and the court is of the opinion ... there is reason for enhancement." Harrell's sentence was increased to 21 years, but later reduced to 16 after defense attorneys Bill Hampton and Street presented mitigating circumstances.
   Brown also said attorneys for Harrell and the parents of Oaks Jr. had reached agreement in a wrongful-death suit. As a result, Harrell's properties will be attached and $500,000 will be held in trust for the children of Oaks Jr.