Raleigh, N.C. — Defense attorneys for a Raleigh man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend and the mother of two of his children conceded Friday to "very nasty" and disturbing facts of the case but urged jurors not to let emotions decide the outcome of their client's first-degree murder trial.
"They want you to convict Grant Hayes because of the things he did, not because they have proven that he killed Laura Ackerson," attorney Jeff Cutler told jurors during closing arguments. "They have not proven how Laura Ackerson died or who killed her."
But Wake County prosecutors said Hayes, embroiled in a bitter custody dispute with Ackerson, was desperate to get rid of her any way he could and that his actions before and after her July 13, 2011, death prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Laura Ackerson loved her kids to death. She loved her kids to her own death," Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger said in the state's closing arguments. "Grant Hayes knew that, and he tried to control her that night. Now, he's trying to control you with his defense."
On Monday morning, jurors are expected to begin deliberating whether Hayes, 34, is guilty of first- or second-degree murder or if he is not guilty of the crime. If they return a first-degree murder verdict, Hayes faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The local musician is accused of luring Ackerson, 27, to his northwest Raleigh apartment and – after killing her – dismembering her body and carrying her remains in coolers to Richmond, Texas, where he dumped them in a creek near his wife's sister's home.
Security videos showed Hayes on shopping trips to a Raleigh Walmart, where he bought a saw investigators said was used to cut up Ackerson. Footage from a Home Depot in Texas showed him buying acid that the state argued was poured on her severed head before Hayes dumped it in the creek.
"He didn't just dispose of her body. He engraved his hate by cutting off her head," Zellinger said. "That dismemberment means more than just disposing of the body. It's extreme abhorrence of the person he killed. What more dehumanizing things could you do to a person?"
As part of a temporary custody arrangement, Hayes' and Ackerson's boys – ages 2 and 3 at the time of the crime – lived with their father and saw their mother on weekends.
Prosecutor Becky Holt, however, said the custody case was starting to go bad for him after an unfavorable report detailing a court-ordered psychological evaluation recommended that Hayes be further evaluated by a psychiatrist because of his "illogical disturbed thinking" toward Ackerson.
"This is a case in which the defendant was at a point where he was losing control," Holt said. "He had grand aspirations to be this songwriter that would go to Nashville or travel the world with his children and move his life forward. The defendant wanted Laura to just go away."
Some of the state's strongest evidence supporting their argument was from a former inmate who said Hayes told him in late July 2011 while at the Wake County Detention Center that he got Ackerson to go to his home under the false pretense of resolving the custody fight, then subdued and strangled her.
The jury also heard a song that Hayes recorded in which the lyrics talked of killing his two children's mother. They read similar lyrics to another song that police found in his apartment.
"They want you to convict Grant Hayes because he wrote a song. The song he played was a parody," attorney Will Durham said. "It's not a funny joke now, in light of what happened, but he was blowing off some steam."
Cutler and Durham argued that it was Hayes' wife, Amanda Hayes, 41, who killed Ackerson during an argument and that their client only helped cover up the crime because he worried no one would believe that it was unplanned.
"Grant Hayes helped dispose of Laura Ackerson's body because of his wife," Durham said. "That's a terrible thing, and it's a serious crime, but that's not what this case is about. This case is not about disposing of a body – it's a terrible thing, but it's not murder."
Amanda Hayes, they argued, had more of a motive after her husband signed a $25,000 agreement in which she would give up the custody fight, which Grant Hayes complained in Facebook messages to friends had drained him financially.
Uncertain of where the money would come from, Amanda Hayes was upset about the arrangement, defense attorneys said.
"If you're going to kill someone to get custody, you don't need an agreement to say you need custody," Durham said. "That would be the dumbest plan in history to have someone come to your house so that you could kill them in your home with your children present."
Amanda Hayes also confessed the crime to her older sister, Karen Berry, and at no point implicated her husband. But she did, however, indicate to Berry with a nod of her head that she was covering up for Grant Hayes – something Cutler said was outweighed by her words.
"Amanda gave Karen what Karen wanted when she sat her down," Cutler said. "But that is not what happened, and the evidence from Karen Berry is that Amanda Hayes never said to her that 'Grant hurt Laura,' that "we hurt Laura.' It was, 'I hurt Laura.'"
Holt, however, said evidence in the case didn't support any ill will between Amanda Hayes and Ackerson and that the only person with any reason to kill Ackerson was the defendant.
"He wanted to erase Laura from his life," Holt said. "He didn't want to have to deal with Laura Ackerson anymore, and when she came to his apartment, at his request, on July 13, he was going to make sure that Laura Ackerson never saw the light of day again."