10/07/11 — Two will face prison time for murder

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Two will face prison time for murder

By Gary Popp
Published in News on October 7, 2011 1:46 PM

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Joseph Lanier

Tara Sparks

Two defendants accused of being involved in the murder of Jamie Lee Hinson accepted plea deals this week in Wayne County Superior Court.

Hinson was beaten to death in December 2009. His body was found in Evergreen Cemetery on U.S. 70 near the Johnston County line on Dec. 3.

Last week, Steven Barbour was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing Hinson.

Joseph Lanier, 23, and Tara Sparks, 30, had also been charged with murder.

Lanier pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced by Judge Arnold Jones to 94-157 months in prison.

Ms. Sparks pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 38-55 months.

Both received credit for time served.

Barbour was found guilty of having actually beaten and stabbed Hinson to death. Lanier admitted being at the scene of the killing and Ms. Sparks admitted to helping cover up the evidence.

Both Lanier and Ms. Sparks testified during Barbour's trial.

Ms. Sparks signed a plea deal with the state in November 2010 in exchange for her testimony. Lanier later volunteered to take the stand and provide his account of how Hinson was killed and how he, Barbour and Ms. Sparks attempted to cover up the killing.

Lanier entered the courtroom Wednesday in orange inmate attire. A thick leather band around his waist and metal handcuffs restrained his hands during the hearing.

The lanky Lanier sat slumped in his chair while his attorney and the state prosecutor, Matt Delbridge, spoke with Jones.

Two representatives from his family's church spoke on behalf of Lanier's character and the desire to accept religion that he has exhibited while incarcerated. The church's pastor informed the court that he baptized Lanier in the jail.

Jones then gave members of the Hinson family an opportunity to address Lanier and the court.

"I want to let him go," said one of Hinson's sisters in a tearful burst. "We think he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The sister then told Jones that her family believes justice has already been served.

"We don't really want to punish him for what Steven caused," she said. "We forgive him."

Lanier, who had been placid, almost detached, during the hearing, was overcome with emotion and mouthed a silent "thank you" to the Hinson family.

Moments later, Lanier was visibly shaking as he stood before Jones to be sentenced. He could spend between 6 and 11 years behind bars.

During last week's Barbour trial, Ms. Sparks testified that she was asleep in the bedroom that she and Barbour shared in the Lanier family home in the early hours of Dec. 3, 2009, when Barbour and Lanier entered the room wearing blood-spattered clothing.

Ms. Sparks said the men gave her a blood covered police-style baton and pocket knife that were used to kill Hinson, which she cleaned in the bathroom sink of the home.

Ms. Sparks also testified that the two men shared with her details of the killing.

With her hair in a tight bun and dressed in the jail-issued orange, Ms. Sparks was given the opportunity to address the court.

"I can't say I am sorry enough," Ms. Sparks told the court before receiving her sentence.

Ms. Sparks attorney, Mary Jude Darrow, asked Jones to give her client a reduced sentence of house arrest.

Ms. Darrow said Ms. Sparks has written letters to the Hinson family expressing her sincere regret and sorrow for Hinson's death.

The attorney also claimed that Ms. Sparks has a strong support network with her family, which was in the courtroom and had attended every day of the Barbour trial.

Ms. Darrow also said Ms. Sparks had completed a number of ministry courses with high marks while in jail.

"She is sorry. She is truly sorry," Ms. Darrow said of her client.

According to the sentencing and time served, Ms. Sparks will remain in prison for at least a year and perhaps as long as three years.