Court denies Sexton's petition for trial in murder case

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A petition from a Carter County woman to set aside her "no contest" plea to first degree murder in a nine-year-old case involving the murder of a Valley Forge convenience store clerk was denied in Criminal Court on Tuesday.
   Judge Lynn Brown denied Donna Jean Sexton's petition to set aside her "nolo contendre" plea to the charge of first degree murder involving the death of Angela Whitehead Montgomery in June 1993.
   The petition was filed by attorney Kenneth F. Irvine of Knoxville. Had the petition been granted, Sexton would have petitioned the court for a trial by jury on the murder charge.
   Brown's decision has been appealed to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, Eastern District in Knoxville, Irvine told the Star on Thursday.
   "Realistically, it will be nine months to one year before they hear oral arguments," he said.
   Sexton originally filed a petition to set aside her plea in 1996. Her petition requested a new trial citing her plea was unlawfully induced without her understanding the nature and consequences of the pleas by the defense attorneys -- Mark Slagle and Tom Jessee -- assigned to her case.
   In her plea statement entered in March 1995, Sexton is reported as saying, "My attorneys have informed me that a life sentence in Tennessee is served by serving 30 years in the Tennessee Department of Corrections."
   She alleged in her affidavit dated July 21, 1996 that "advice of counsel was erroneous and contrary to the petitioner's best interest, thus denying her effective assistance of counsel."
   "It is now my understanding that the law applicable to my case was that a life sentence in Tennessee was a sixty (60) year sentence. This was not explained to me by my lawyers," states Sexton in her affidavit petitioning her plea be set aside.
   Defendants sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole on a first degree murder charge must serve a minimum of 51 years in prison, according to present state sentencing guidelines.
   The petition request alleges Sexton had ineffective assistance of counsel. The petition further alleges that she was denied an appointed attorney early in the case -- violating her rights to assistance of counsel provided by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
   Sexton -- who was 21-years-old when the crime occurred -- is currently incarcerated at the Memphis facility of the Tennessee Prison for Women.
   According to police reports, Sexton's then-boyfriend William Matney Putman allegedly murdered Montgomery with a knife while robbing the Valley Forge Market on Highway 19E on June 14, 1993. The victim reportedly had been stabbed seven times and her throat slashed.
   The mother of two children, Montgomery was 34-years-old at the time of her death. She had been working at the store only two weeks.
   Putman was apprehended in Florida two days after the incident and charged with first degree murder. Sexton was also arrested in Florida and charged with first degree murder one week later.
   Investigators with the Carter County Sheriff's Department and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) interviewed both subjects before making their presentment to the Carter County Grand Jury in July 1993.
   In interviews with law enforcement, Sexton and Putnam each accused the other of planning the robbery.
   Sexton stated to police that she was aware of Putman's intent to rob the store, but said she didn't realize he planned to kill anyone. She also stated that she feared Putman and did not want to rob the store because she had already borrowed money from a friend.
   Putman had stated to police that the robbery was Sexton's idea and that she had taken Montgomery's purse from the victim's car after they left the store. He alleged to police that he went along with robbery because Sexton had been pushing him to get money so they could travel to Florida to visit her ill father.
   Putman pleaded guilty to first degree murder in February 1995. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He is serving his sentence at the South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
   At the time of the Montgomery's murder, Putman was on parole after serving time for third degree burglary, grand larceny and aggravated kidnapping in 1987, according to court records.
   He had also served time for 1st degree burglary and aggravated assault in 1986, according to the TDOC.
   Neither Sexton nor Putman went to trial for the murder. The state had sought the death penalty against both before they entered their pleas.