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Hardee's killing case might go to federal court, possibly meaning death penalties
The three men accused of killing popular Hardee's employee Dianne E. Freeman-Green in an early morning robbery at the restaurant in 2007 are expected to be prosecuted in federal court rather than in the state system, the former attorney for one of the men said Tuesday.
A federal prosecution, conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office rather than state prosecutors, would bring to bear the federal government's massive financial resources to the case.
It would also mean that all three suspects in the case — not just the man accused of firing the handgun that killed Freeman-Green — could receive the death penalty if convicted. That's unlike Virginia's system, in which only the triggerman can face death.
Alvin B. "Buddy" Fox, an attorney who withdrew from the case in September over differences with his client, said that Newport News Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Valerie Spencer Muth and Deputy Newport News Public Defender Gregory R. Wright Sr. both told him in recent weeks that the case was going federal.
Fox once represented Henry L. Stapleton, 23, one of the three men accused of killing Freeman-Green at the Denbigh restaurant.
Wright confirmed Tuesday that he told Fox the case would move to the federal system, though Wright quickly added, "Nothing is official yet."
Any decision to go for the death penalty in a federal case would be made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, after hearing recommendations from a federal Death Penalty Review Committee.
On Sept. 8, 2007, just before 5:30 a.m., two masked men entered the Hardee's, located on Denbigh Boulevard, robbing the restaurant at gunpoint. As the men left with an undisclosed amount of cash, one of them shot Freeman-Green — even though she had fully cooperated with the robbers. Another Hardee's employee, Dwayne Davis, 21, was also shot, but he has since recovered. Another robber is believed to have stayed outside during the crime.
Freeman-Green, 47, worked at the Hardee's for 16 years, often walking between the restaurant and her home on Curtis Tignor Road. Her death led to lots of community interest, with billboards posted by Hardee's advertising a $20,000 reward for the killer.
Stapleton, 23, and Michael Johnson Jr., 22, both of Newport News, were arrested in the case earlier this year. They face first-degree murder, robbery and related charges.
Police said that neither Stapleton nor Johnson is believed to have been the shooter. Police haven't named the man they believe fired the gun, but have said he's in long-term custody on unrelated charges.
Neither Muth nor Commonwealth's Attorney Howard E. Gwynn returned phone calls this week from the Daily Press. Managing Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard J. Zlotnick, who oversees federal prosecutions on the Peninsula, said he would "neither confirm nor deny the existence of a federal investigation" in the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Novak, who coordinates federal death penalty cases in eastern Virginia, also declined to comment.
The case can go federal on a number of legal theories, including that the killing affected interstate commerce.