PRINCETON — A man listened as a judge told him Wednesday that he is facing up to 40 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of second- degree murder in the August 2019 shooting death of a Mercer County woman.
Darrell Wesley Hazelwood, 48, of Princeton was arrested and charged with first-degree murder after the Aug. 10, 2019 shooting death of Princeton-area resident Tessa Hill outside her parents’ home on Murdock Street.
The jury deliberated for about an hour before reaching its verdict. Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope informed Hazelwood that he is facing a determinate term of up to 40 years in prison. Hazelwood was facing life in prison for first-degree murder. He is currently being held at the Southern Regional Jail.
The state, represented by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney John McGinnis, rested its case Tuesday after the jury heard from several witnesses including members of Hill’s family and Detective Sgt. S.A. Sommers of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department.
Judge Swope gave the jury its instructions before the state and defense presented their closing arguments. The jurors were told that they had to choose between first-degree murder, first-degree murder with a recommendation of mercy, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or not guilty.
People convicted of first-degree murder with a recommendation of mercy can be eligible parole within 15 years, but parole is not guaranteed, Swope said.
Hazelwood did not testify during his trial. Swope told the jury that Hazelwood had the right to remain silent, and that choosing not to testify could not be considered against him.
McGinnis said during the state’s closing argument that testimony heard Tuesday showed that Tessa Hill and Hazelwood had had an argument earlier that day. Her boyfriend, Ronnie Ferrell, drove her to her parents’ home.
“Who shows up shortly thereafter?” McGinnis said. “Darrell Hazelwood.”
Hazelwood wanted to push a confrontation with Tessa Hill and went directly to her, McGinnis said, adding that the jury had heard testimony that he put his hands on Hill, and that Ferrell stepped in and started to fight Hazelwood.
Ferrell beat Hazelwood and admitted during his testimony that he hit Hazelwood’s head against the pavement. According to witnesses’ testimony, Tessa Hill tried to pull Ferrell off Hazelwood. The forensic pathologist who conducted an autopsy, Dr. Jonathan Arden, testified there were no injuries on her that indicated she had taken part in the fight.
At this point, Hazelwood, who had been beaten, rose to his feet, reached into his pocket, took out a gun and chambered a round, McGinnis stated. He fired at Ferrell, who was stumbling, and missed. He then turned to Tessa Hill, who was on the ground after her father pulled her away from Ferrell, and shot her before or after saying, “I’ll teach you to double team me.”
“The defense argued this is an act of self defense,” McGinnis said.
Attorney Joseph Harvey, who represented Hazelwood with attorney J.J. McPherson, showed the jury photographs of Hazelwood that were taken soon after his arrest. They showed cuts and bruises across his face.
The live round could have been ejected from the gun when Hazelwood chambered a new one, Harvey stated. This indicated that he had no plans to shoot anybody when he came to Tessa Hill.
“If you’re going to shoot somebody, you’re going to know if you have a live round in that chamber,” Harvey told the jury.
Harvey reminded the jury about other testimony heard during the trial. Dr. Arden testified that Tessa Hill had been using cocaine and other controlled substances that can cause “aggression, confusion and paranoia.” She was upset because she thought police were after her and that she had been “set up,” Harvey stated.
Sommers said in his criminal complaint that Hazelwood told Ferrell that Hill had “disrespected him and that he needed to ‘slap’ her around. After dropping off Hazelwood, Ferrell picked up Hill and “during a conversation with her, he learned that the victim was being accused of stealing money.” Hill and Ferrell were living with Hazelwood at that time.
Physical evidence found at the scene was another part of the defense’s argument for Hazelwood.
Harvey told the jury that while witnesses testified that his client had fired two shots, Sommers could find evidence of only one shot after searching the crime scene for about seven hours. A spent shell casing and one live round were found.
“I’d be curious for the state to say where that second round went if it was fired,” Harvey said. “How can (Sommers) not find a second round in seven hours? It makes no sense.”
The defense also argued that there were inconsistencies in the witnesses’ statements about what Hazelwood did in the moments leading up to Tessa Hill being shot. Harvey also said the angle in which the bullet hit Tessa Hill was inconsistent with a person who was on the ground when it was fired.
Since the state had the burden of proof, McGinnis was able to address the jury again. He said that Hazelwood had demonstrated premeditation and malice. On the subject of the bullet’s angle, he said that the way her body was lying, and that the live round and spent casing were found near her, were consistent with the wound.
McGinnis also addressed the issue about inconsistencies in the witnesses’ statements.
“Folks, you’ve got to try and remember that (Sommers) is trying to get facts from people who have just witnessed the single worst thing in their entire lives,” he said to the jury. “It’s not implausible there might be some inconsistencies.”
On the subject of drug use, McGinnis said Tessa Hill “was a troubled woman” and “did not deserve to die” if she had been using illegal drugs. Concerning testimony that she had been “paranoid,” he said that she did not seek a fight with Hazelwood.
“She didn’t come to the defendant. The defendant came to her with the confrontation,” McGinnis stated. “She was somebody’s mother, she was somebody’s daughter, and she did not deserve to be executed on the ground for what she was. I ask you to find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder without mercy because he didn’t show Tessa any mercy.”
After the jury delivered its verdict, Harvey said the defense would move for a new trial.
A hearing date was set for early October. Swope said if the motion for a new trial is denied, the court will proceed with sentencing. Swope also ordered that a presentencing be conducted.
Families of the victim and the defendant left the courthouse at separate times. Swope said that for both families, there was no other way to describe the shooting than “a horrible tragedy.”
Swope advised both families to stay apart.
“Please do not compound the tragedy and make it worse,” he said. “In plain English, I want you to go your separate ways, leave each other alone. Please do not dig this hole any deeper.”
— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline. com